Notebook — From the June 2008 issue

Democracy and Deference

I blame my parents, which is trite but traditional. Six years after stepping onto the troubled shore of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s America they had a son and promptly began to fill his head with nonsense. In America, they taught me, talent and hard work were all; allegiance was automatically owed to no one; respect had to be earned. In America, the president worked for us, and knew it, and the house we allowed him to live in for a time—that great white outie of the Republic—was known as The People’s House. Would that I had been suckled by wolves.

Turn on the TV to almost any program with an office in it, and you’ll find a depressingly accurate representation of the “boss culture,” a culture based on an a priori notion of—a devout belief in—inequality. The boss will scowl or humiliate you . . . because he can, because he’s the boss. And you’ll keep your mouth shut and look contrite, even if you’ve done nothing wrong . . . because, well, because he’s the boss. Because he’s above you. Because he makes more money than you. Because—admit it—he’s more than you.

[*] The primary goal, after all, is not power per se but a higher profit margin, a motivation amply shared, in today’s America, by those in the “business” of governing. I am assuming that there is still some useful distinction to be made between the public and the private sectors, between the Bush Administration’s CEOs and their brothers in industry, between the increasingly authoritarian behavior of our “elected” representatives and the generally authoritarian climate of the American workplace, which seems unlikely.

This is the paradigm—the relational model that shapes so much of our public life. Its primary components are intimidation and fear. It is essentially authoritarian. If not principally about the abuse of power, it rests, nonetheless, on a generally accepted notion of power’s privileges.[* Of its inherent rights. The Rights of Man? Please. The average man has the right to get rich so that he too can sit behind a desk wearing an absurd haircut, yelling, “You’re fired!” or refuse to take any more questions; so that he too—when the great day comes—can pour boiling oil on the plebes at the base of the castle wall, each and every one of whom accepts his right to do so, and aspires to the honor.

You say I’m tilting at human nature? That the race of man loves a lord—and always has? That power (and what good is power if it can’t be abused a little, no?) has always been one of the time-honored perks of success, and that, of all the lies told, the one about all men being created equal is the most patently absurd? Perhaps. But surely one could argue that the American democratic experiment was at least in part an attempt to challenge this “reality,” to establish a political and legal culture from which would emerge, organically, a new sensibility: independent, unburdened by the protocols of class, skeptical of inherited truths. Willing to be disobedient. To moon the lord.

Alas, if that was the plan, it went sideways a long time ago. In today’s America, the majority is nothing if not impressed by power and fame (its legitimacy is irrelevant), nothing if not obedient. As for mooning the lord, the ass to the glass these days is more likely to be the lord’s, and our own posture toward it, well, something short of heroic. Worse yet, should someone decide to take offense, and suggest that it is not the lord’s place to act thusly, he will be set upon by the puckering multitude who will punish him for his impertinence.

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