Notebook — From the June 2008 issue

Democracy and Deference

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At a White House reception a couple of years ago, President George Bush asked Senator-elect Jim Webb how things were going for his son, a Marine serving in Iraq. “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President,” Webb replied. “I didn’t ask you that,” the president shot back. “I asked you how your boy was doing.”

Webb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, had not only risked his own life in the service of his country but now had a child in harm’s way, serving in an ill-conceived and criminally mismanaged war sold to the nation under false pretenses by the man standing in front of him. One might expect this second man to be nice. To show a modicum of respect. Should he fall short of this, one could at least take comfort in the certainty that the American people would hold him accountable for his rudeness and presumption.

Which is precisely what many of them did—they held Jim Webb accountable. “I’m surprised and offended by Jim Webb,” declared Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University, in a New York Times article entitled “A Breach of Manners Sets a Tough Town Atwitter.” Admitting that the president had perhaps been “a little snippy,” Professor Hess went on to extol the democratic virtues of decorum and protocol, interrupting himself only long enough to recall a steel executive named Clarence Randall who, having once addressed Harry S Truman as “Mr. Truman” instead of “Mr. President,” remained haunted by it for decades.

Hess wasn’t the only one to be shocked by Webb’s behavior. Letitia Baldrige, the “doyenne of Washington manners,” termed the whole thing “a sad exchange.” Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, made the point that “even discussions of war and life and death did not justify suspending the rules,” then declined to comment on l’affaire Webb-Bush, saying, “It would be rude of me to declare an individual rude.”

But it was left to Kate Zernike, the author of the Times article, to place the cherry atop this shameful confection in the form of a seemingly offhand parenthetical: “(On criticizing the president in his own house, Ms. Baldrige quotes the French: ça ne se fait pas—‘it is not done.’)”

To which one might reply, in the parlance of my native town: Why the fuck not? Répétez après moi: It ain’t the man’s house. We’re letting him borrow it for a time. And he should behave accordingly—that is, as one cognizant of the honor bestowed upon him—or risk being evicted by the people in favor of a more suitable tenant.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The outrage over the Webb-Bush exchange was not really about decorum. It was about daring to stand up to the boss. Rudeness? Stop. This is America. We’re rude to one another more or less continually. We make mincemeat of one another on television, fiberoptically flame one another to a crisp, blog ourselves bloody. No, rudeness, as deplorable as it is, is not the point here, particularly as Webb, judged by any reasonable standard, wasn’t rude at all.

But wait—maybe rudeness is the point after all. Maybe rudeness, in our democratically challenged age, has morphed into a synonym for insubordination. If true, this explains a great deal. It suggests that in America today, only something done to those above us can qualify as rudeness. Done to those below it’s something quite different—a right.

Which brings us to the case of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose dueling careers as soldier and statesman fought it out before the U.N. Security Council on that memorable day as the nation prepared for war. The soldier, not surprisingly, dispatched the statesman, to our ongoing grief and Powell’s everlasting shame.

In a nutshell—or shell casing, perhaps—it came down to this: despite his doubts about the “intelligence” he had been provided, despite the fact that he spent days “trimming the garbage” from Vice President Cheney’s “evidence” of Iraq’s weapons programs and its ties to Al Qaeda, Powell went ahead and shilled for the liars anyway. Why did he not threaten to expose the whole thing publicly? Because, as he has said, to do so would have betrayed the ethic of the loyal soldier he believed himself to be.

What kind of culture defines “maturity” as the time when young men and women sacrifice principle to prudence, when they pledge allegiance to the boss in the name of self-promotion and “realism”? What kind of culture defines adulthood as the moment when the self goes underground? One answer might be a military one. The problem is that while unthinking loyalty to one’s commanding officer may be necessary in war, it is disastrous outside of it. Why? Because loyalty, by definition, qualifies individualism, discouraging the expression of individual opinion, recasting honesty as a type of betrayal. Because loyalty to power, rather than to what one believes to be true or right, is fatally undemocratic, and can lead to the most horrendous abuses. Powell’s excuse—that he did not want to betray the ethic of the loyal soldier—was precisely the one used by the defendants at Nuremberg, and if you say that the analogy is a reckless one, that Colin Powell is no Rudolf Hess but a generally decent man—an A student, a team player, a loyal employee, a good soldier—I’ll agree, and say only this: God save us from men and women like him, for they will do almost anything in the name of “loyalty.” Something to consider, perhaps, as the nation contemplates electing to the presidency John McCain, a member of our warrior class for whom loyalty constitutes the highest possible virtue.

What we require most in America today are bad soldiers: stubborn, independent-minded men and women, reluctant to give orders and loath to receive them, loyal not to authority, nor to any specific company or team, but to the ideals of open debate, equality, honesty, and fairness.

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