City Lit: Corny Flake

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Rising from Southern poverty to the leadership of a church-based economic development empire, the Reverend Floyd Flake is both an American archetype and one of the most complex figures on the New York political scene. Until his recent retirement from Congress, Flake represented black middle-class neighborhoods that boasted the highest voter turnout for David Dinkins in the city. Yet he went on to back conservative causes, including school vouchers and the candidacy of Rudolph Giuliani. Through it all Flake has emerged as the champion of a fascinating career that has included both the revitalization of Southeast Queens and a federal indictment for embezzlement.

On this history Flake has built a reputation as a political maverick who preaches economic self-help, practices political expediency and focuses on the interests of his congregation, some say at the expense of the wider black community. With his first book, The Way of the Bootstrapper, Flake attempts to convert this public image into a coherent philosophy. The predictable result, as with books by other public personalities who offer their lives as an inspirational message, is a gassed-up Horatio Alger homily.

Bootstrapper is part traditional self-help book and part corporate how-to guide in the spirit of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Flake shares his own nine-step plan for personal success and community-building, stocking it with practical advice, moral finger-wagging and self-improvement exercises. He draws on his own history as one of 13 children born into a poor family in Texas who then worked his way through high school and college before becoming pastor of Queens’ Allen AME church in 1979.

Unlike with many self-help and spiritual guidance books, readers won’t get lost in touchy-feely language or ethereal themes. But where Bootstrapper succeeds in being reader-friendly and practical, it suffers by offering warmed-over, social conservative “wisdom” that borders on the banal. That’s not to say that all of Bootstrapper suffers from a lack of imagination. In one chapter Flake refers to personal introspection as “closet work,” a process through which we visualize our future, challenge our inner demons and tap into our internal energy. Perhaps Flake’s most effective and insightful concept is “claiming,” “an aggressive style of prayer where you acknowledge the result even before you receive it. Sometimes you need to be quiet and listen for guidance. But at other times you must become a prayer warrior and claim your good.”

Unfortunately, this is as deep as it gets. Mostly we find the good pastor delivering clichéd observations: “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” “Develop good work habits and all your steps will be efficient.” “By becoming proactive through daily exercise, healthy eating habits and stress relief we become healthier and fit.” And so on.

Flake mines popular culture, like the movies Groundhog Day and The Truman Show, for his parables and teachings. When he does refer to the Bible, which is not as often as one might think, Flake trots out phrases so familiar that he manages to make the Good Book itself seem trite. At other times Flake is recklessly reductionist. “There are two types of people in the world,” he theorizes, “people who do and people who won’t.” Flake’s consideration of “success” takes place wholly outside of history and social context. Follow his logic to its natural conclusion, and everyone’s personal life story is either a victory cry or an excuse: Public assistance recipients are public enemies, and anyone stuck in a low-paying job deserves it.

But what fundamentally damns Flake’s analysis is its lack of genuine spirituality. Flake uncritically joins the cult of the capitalist American dream, in which success, fulfillment and self-worth are measured by one’s competitive fervor. The true value in learning the path to inner peace and God, we to come to understand, is to get you off your lazy ass.

Flake’s bootstrapping poster children are the usual suspects: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, the founders of Federal Express and Nike. Notably, Jesus Christ is rarely held up as a role model. Unlike most of Flake’s heroes, Jesus never aspired to be anything more than a carpenter, professionally speaking. If Christ were alive today, I suspect Flake might exhort him to “just do it.”

Flake claims at the outset that “bootstrapping” is a “process of achieving success by making it, against the odds, through self-directed action.” It is a “mindset” and a “value system” that is shared by others. But by the time we move into the final chapters, the laws of bootstrapping become less universal and veer dangerously into self-rationalization. In response to those who criticize him for playing both sides of the partisan fence, Flake reasons that “a successful bootstrapper must be able to navigate the political and economic minefields in search of common ground.”

But Flake’s walk on “common ground”–liberal Maxine Waters and conservative William Bennett write the book’s foreword and introduction–leaves him standing in the fog. Lost from sight are the values of social justice and self-love on which true self-determination and personal responsibility are built.

Flake’s co-author deserves part of the blame–there is simply no excuse when a man whom I know personally to be intelligent, independent and creative, as well as warm and spiritually grounded, is represented in print this way. If the political gossip is right and “Rev” does decide to run for mayor, I will not only campaign for him but also insist on writing his campaign literature.

Mark Winston Griffith is the executive director of the Central Brooklyn Partnership.