13 min read

How I Failed at What Mattered Most, The Age of Warnings is Over, and Leadership in the 21st Century

How I Failed at What Mattered Most, The Age of Warnings is Over, and Leadership in the 21st Century

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

New here? Get the Issue in your inbox daily.

  1. ‘We deserve more’: US workers’ share of the pie dwindles (The Guardian)
  2. Under Putin, a militarized new Russia rises to challenge U.S. and the West (WaPo)
  3. The spread of bird flu virus on US dairy farms alarms WHO (El Pais)
  4. Swing State Economies May Pose Trouble for Biden (Barron)
  5. L.A. influencers, businesses live or die on TikTok’s algorithm. Now they fear for the future (LA Times)
  6. How rich is too rich? (Nature)
  7. Assaults on German Politicians Raise Election-Year Worries (NYT)

Hi! How’s everyone? Welcome, new readers, and I hope everyone had a wonderful weekend. Today, we’re going to talk about…a lot of things. Me, you, us, the future, how the world is changing, and the mess things are in. It’s gonna be a tough read. Beginning with…

How I Failed at What Mattered Most

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a little bit comical, a little bit tragic, and maybe a little bit meaningful.

The last few months have been the hardest of my life. Harder, even, than when I was really ill, and the doctors told me I was going to die. Then, I found making my peace…surprisingly easy. Hey, I had a good run, I remember thinking to myself.

But now? I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’ve failed. At…my purpose, I think. This isn’t just about me, by the way, of course, but I’m coming to that. I wrote a little post about this at Medium, you can read that one too if you want.

Back when I was sick, I sort of made a decision—to what limited extent I could. I saw a profoundly troubled age coming for the world. In those days, I was already one of the world’s rising thinkers, not my opinion, on the requisite lists and doing the rounds of all the talk shows and whatnot. And my choice—I don’t know if it really was a choice in the absolute sense, after all, I was really, really sick, and couldn’t do much but write, anyways, just discovering the light could kill me—was to sort of focus on warning of the changes I saw coming.

So I did that, the way I was taught. Which was to be forthright, and take no prisoners, and lay it out.

And then something funny began to happen. The more I warned, the more…everyone…lots of people, anyways…sort of…turned on me. My peers. My friends. My colleagues and acquaintances. Really viciously. After a while, it was sort of open season. And I was…not bewildered, as I’ll explain…but…sort of heartbroken. I’ve been that way for a long time, now. My poor lovely wife looks at me, and sees this shattered thing I’ve become. I wish I wasn’t. But I had to take this…journey…into ruin. 

And maybe you’ve had a taste of that, too. What did they call people like us, anyways, for the last few years? Alarmist. Hysteric. Doomer, scaremonger, etcetera. All just sort of open insults, as if we weren’t thinking clearly or carefully. How did that make you feel? How does it make you feel?

Today, I think…I’ve failed at my life’s purpose. And that feeling, which we’ll talk about more in the coming days? It’s bleak. Like a cave. Cold and dark and empty and endless. Like I said, it was easier for me to face The End than it is to…really…grapple….with this, which is sort of funny. Because at least that wasn’t a failure. It was just an accident, bad luck, fate. This? This is many things. And I don’t know that failure is always the kind of glorious victory-in-disguise we’re told it is. Sometimes, like right now, it just feels like…my heart is broken, and maybe it’ll never be whole again. 

The Vicious Cycle of Us Vs the Age of the Idiot

See what was happening there? What still is? The more that we’d warn them…the more they’d turn right around…and insult us. Comic? Tragic? If you ask me, idiotic. Then we’d warn them harder, and they’d…double right down, too…and so the vicious circle would only accelerate.

But only one of us got hurt. And it wasn’t them. It was us. And in that…I’ll come back to that.

So now here we are. Everything that I predicted, and I bet that you began to wonder about, or maybe began to take more seriously, or predict yourself—all that “hysterical” and “alarmist” stuff…has now come true. Not in a weak sense, but in a strong one. Trump didn’t disappear, he’s back, and he’s on course to win. The far right’s surged to power to the point Emmanuel Macron speaks of the death of Europe and civilization. The Elders are out there pleading to anyone who’ll listen to pay attention to an age of existential threats. And of course climate change’s mega scale impacts are here, and our economies have utterly tanked. 

But have those of us who genuinely cared to the point of risking it all and breaking our hearts…have we ever been lower? Less…respected? More held in contempt? Smaller and more belittled? Not just me, but all of us. Scientists, writers, artists, thinkers, whomever, who sort of took this stance, and that’s a long list. Of warning, as a kind of…

It’s not just me. Think of how it feels to be, I don’t know, a climate scientist, these days. A social scientist, who knows a thing or two about authoritarianism. A not-bad economist. A politician not of the burn-down-democracy variety. Just a decent person. I bet we all feel like we’ve failed to some degree—maybe not as hard as I do, but…the world isn’t exactly kind to us at the moment, is it? What do we do with that feeling, that knowledge, that burden?

Why did I do it, anyways? Why did I devote a few years of my precious life to this fools’ errand? Even way back then, I knew it was sort of doomed to fail. A cursory glance at history will disabuse you of any notion that societies or civilizations pay attention to warnings, or hold those who warn in any sort of esteem or regard. Cassandra, for her part, was murdered, and of course, poor old Socrates drank the hemlock. “I’m not saying I’m them”—see how scarred I am by years of taking this sort of shit from every corner?—hold on, we were right. Fuck that noise—let us at least be confident and unapologetic now, and I’ll come back to that, too.

Why I Did a Thing That Was Destined to Fail Horribly

So. I knew it was doomed to fail. I thought maybe there was a slender, slender chance of “success,” and by that, I just meant…I don’t know…averting any of these disasters that by now have reached the point of “polycrisis.” And back then, I had the clout, too—but I wasn’t prepared for the way they’d all turn on me, and openly mock me and insult me to my face, for saying things like fascism would rise, economies would sour, climate change would hit unbelievably hard, because of course, only a certain kind of guy has the privilege to say that, since voice is where power begins

So why did I do it? If I knew it would fail? Simple, for the same reason that you might have done so, too. It was our moral responsibility. What kind of a person can really watch a world unravel, a civilization come apart—and just sort of not even say anything? In my case, I had a special gift—I really was one of my generation’s best economists and minds, sorry, I know, as a “brown guy,” I’m not allowed to say that, fuck right off…and I thought if I didn’t do it…what kind of example would I be setting for everyone else?

So I made this fatal decision to…warn. And it only made things worse, I think, in the end, because, after all, it was all sort of fated to be anyways, by forces much greater than me, history, folly, etcetera. Meanwhile, whew, did I pay the price. I became “controversial” and “misunderstood” and all the rest of the terms they’ll apply, still, to us, even as they wonder: why is the world on fire.

So here we are.

Everything we warned of happened. And yet people like us have never been more hated, feared, despised, loathed, marginalized. I understand now what really happened: I threatened power. And power reacted violently, to sort of remove me from the equation. Because what I was really saying was: reform, or else. Power never wants to give an inch, a millimeter—that’s what power is, after all, and in that sense, what I did was especially stupid, LOL, because I was a frail, sick brown dude, who’s sort of the kind of person power scorns to begin with. The chances they’d listen to me? Versus a guy named “Josh” or something? Less than zero.

Sorry to all my friends named Josh, but that’s just reality. This is and was about power. Power does not want us to be heard. And sadly, it won, as power tends to do. Yet because of that very mistake, power itself now finds itself confronted by much worse than…us. Who’s worse, we who tried to warn, or, uh, the fascists? You see what I mean. 

Power silences criticism. But criticism is there to prevent collapse. Here we find the seeds of all folly, and in that folly, I think I’ve stared too long into the bleak, stupid, infinite heart of human tragedy. Why didn’t they just listen to us? Was it really better, in the end, to face all this, to get here? But I understand now: power hates us, more than anything, more than the true monsters, more than the warmongers, the crooks, the fascists, and so on—and it always has, and for that reason, you and I must stand decide to stand outside its corridors, or else cede what little dignity we’re left with. In all that, the decent person is left with the same dilemma I was: warn, or stay silent? Face the opprobrium, or just live your goddamned life in peace? Shred your reputation, or watch everything crash and burn, anyways?

Now, that might sound like a sort of annoying combination of self-pity and self-righteousness, but it’s not intended that way. I think it’s sort of funny, that I made this tremendous, idiotic mistake, of trying to save the world, especially a “world” that hated people like us to begin with, whether minorities, women, those who are different in any way. I’m just saying that…we had to try, didn’t we?

And in that? Be unapologetic about it, my friends. At least there’s a nobility in trying to do the right thing, and in that, perhaps, lies a limited, threadbare sense of consolation.

I just sort of chuckle at my younger self, full of bravado, because today, I know I failed. And that part hurts. In a way I think I’ve never really known before. Sure, sure, what a privileged life Umair has—ha-ha, he never failed. But I don’t mean it that way, the way you might think. I certainly don’t mean that I wanted to win some kind of dumb internet popularity contest—if that was the goal, I would’ve just been a manfluencer telling you women are objects and hey, take some testosterone. I mean that I failed in real, hard, and unforgiving terms. Nobody heard me, and instead, it shredded what reputation I had, and today, all those old friends and acquaintances and colleagues of mine…they sort of hate me. And I don’t even know why. Was it just…for warning? For rocking the boat? Who knows. 

And I don’t have time to really think about it too much, because I just sort of sit with the feeling of failure. The weird, empty, hurt of it. Hey, I just wanted to stop some of this. No, I’m not any of the insane things people have called me over the years, come on, do I seem like a murderer or a cad to you? I’m just a guy. But am I a person, to them? Doesn’t sound like it. Even those who used to be my colleagues or friends or what not. 

I think that when we’re critical, our personhood itself is what vanishes, just like that, as power preserves itself, and exiles us. And that’s the part that leaves me heartbroken, because in that lie all the truths of human tragedy. After all, we have to try, don’t we? But what happens when we do? And if we don’t, what ever changes?

But now? It’s…it feels…too late. To stop it all. Doesn’t it?

The Age of Warnings is Over

There’s a lesson—many, in fact—in all of that. The first one goes like this.

The Age of Warnings is now over. We’re in a very different place now. Back then, we were in a vicious circle: we’d warn, they’d insult us, we’d warn harder…and so on. But now? There’s nothing left to warn about.

Now, humanity’s making its choices. And…they’re not good ones. They’ll set the trajectory of the thing we call civilization for decades, if not centuries, to come. Those choices, at this stage, are more or less set in stone—people aren’t going to suddenly change their minds. And they’ve decided to give up on democracy, give up on modernity, let the sort of considered idea of life go, embrace demagogues, and not do too much, if anything, to solve today’s real problems, from climate change to inequality to underinvestment and so on.

We’re now in an age where choices are being made, precisely the ones that we tried to warn of. Hey, should we give up on basic freedoms? How about we put these bellowing crackpots in power? What if we revert back to nationalism and authoritarianism? Now, we can go deep in the analysis of such choices, and we often do. But the point is that by now, it’s too late to warn. The choices are now being made right before our eyes, they’re set in stone, and they’re not going to change, come hell or high water.

Remember how we just discussed Macron’s beautiful and noble speech? I called it the first great political moment of the 21st century. And it was. But it was also something else. A warning, given too late. Macron warned that our civilization is mortal, and referenced Camus, the greatest social thinker of the 20the century, to make his case. But as powerful and poignant as Macron’s speech was…is it really going to change anything? How could it? People’s minds are made up.

So now we enter a different age. And people like you and me? The truth is this. Our role, too, must now differ. It’s sort of pointless now, to warn—even more so than before. See how even at this juncture, though everything we discussed came true, there they are, still insulting us. LOL.

How to Fail at Leadership in the 21st Century, or What Do You Do When a World Goes Haywire?

Where does that leave us? With questions, and perplexing and difficult ones. If the Age of Warning is over, then what age…is this? What role do we play, now, people like us, the ones who think and reflect and try to understand and are guided by moral visions, not just led astray so easily by self-deceit, rage, and disappointment, to founder on the rocks of self-destruction?

I think that our role—hold on, let me backtrack for a moment.

What did I fail at? Being a leader. And now I understand, too, in a deeper, gentler way, just why. This was an age that rejected leadership, and so how could I have succeeded at it? It embraced the diametrical opposite, demagoguery, and so of course, being a leader was sort of doomed to fail. Which is precisely why—forget about me—we’ve hardly seen any leaders worthy of the name in any field, from politics to business and beyond. And those that do emerge? They’re sort of viciously assassinated in character by the crackpots, with the nodding complicity of the establishment—think of a Malala or a Greta, for example. 

We live in a world utterly bereft of leadership, which is why Macron’s speech was so important—it was a moment where we witnessed a sort of boring politician finally begin rising to the challenge of true leadership

So. That’s what I failed at, abysmally, and was doomed to, because, well, that’s what happens when worlds fall apart, and, hey, sure, maybe I’m just an idiot who’s not very good at it to begin with, perfectly acceptable.

The task yesterday was to warn, and that was sort of what leadership was, and it was destined to the sort of profound, haunting failure that’s left me feeling bereft. But today’s task is very, very different. Set of tasks, really.

What are they? If we’re not here to warn, anymore—hey, don’t make those choices, they’re super self-destructive, hey, watch out, all this is going to go wrong, and we’re way past that now—then what are we here to do?

And as I reflect on that, I sort of know the answer, even as struggle internally to really accept it. We’re here to observe, to bear witness. To chronicle, all the ugliness, of a world that’s already on fire. To tell the story of what happens when you don’t listen to the warnings, and marginalize those who should be heard, which isn’t, emphatically, just me, but so many voices, at the margins. We’re here to sort of understand and come to terms with what happens when a world and a civilization gets it so, so wrong, as power destroys the spirit of humanity, and twists into a sort of broken, perverse thing.

And when the time is right, we’re here to guide people and the world and institutions out of that mess. That time won’t come for a while. Not another decade, easily, perhaps not even within our lifetimes, if you want me to be blunt. 

What’s different about people like you and me…is a lot of things. We’re gifted with this sort of deeper vision that we can’t unsee. We’re guided by a moral force we can’t deny. The voices of history, their pain and torment, are always whispering to us. 

When I was in second grade, my parents sent me to a Very Fancy Private School. They showed us a movie, about homelessness. In it, a poor old woman pushed a cart with all her worldly belongings. The teachers taught us, stridently, not lessons of compassion, justice, equality, and truth—but not to end up like that, a liability, a waste, a nothing. I began to cry. I couldn’t understand any of it. The ugliness of that moment has stayed with me a lifetime.

So I’ve always been like this. Maybe you have, too. I think in this day and age, people with our gifts, our talents, our…thing…are…just…hated. For being who we are. But we can’t help that. Our gifts aren’t recognized as gifts, but demonized as dangerous curses, to be dispelled. I don’t accept that. Even in the bitter, bleak, brutal depths of my absolute failure, I understand one thing remains. 

There is a time after this, and our task is to ensure that we get there. After all: now that we know the depths of human folly, of tragedy within tragedy, our hearts are already broken, aren’t they?

❤️ Don't forget...

📣 Share The Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

💵 If you like our newsletter, drop some love in our tip jar.

📫 Forward this to a friend and tell them all all about it.

👂 Anything else? Send us feedback or say hello!