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.

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.

Democracy, of course, is not an absolute but a relative value: “We’re not perfect,” the cry will sound, “but show us who is!” I’ll take a pass on perfection, but I’ll say this: when it comes to the egalitarian attitude democracy presupposes, the Brits, for all their wigged getups and parliamentary histrionics, have it all over us. It’s not just the formal, procedural differences between the two political cultures (the mandated brevity of the British election season, or the government’s strictures on how much money a candidate can spend) that cast us in a sad and diminished light; it’s the difference in spirit that lies behind, and informs, these distinctions.

In general, the Brits act as though the government is their business and they have every right to meddle in it. Americans, by and large, display no such self-assurance. To the contrary, we seem to believe, deep in our hearts, that the business of government is beyond our provenance. What accounts for the difference? My wife, whose family hails in part from England, has a theory: unlike us, the Brits don’t confuse their royalty with their civil servants, because they have both, clearly labeled. Acknowledging the universal desire to defer, they channel that desire, wisely, into the place where it can do the least harm, a kind of political sump. Americans, on the other hand, lacking the royal catch basin, are squeezed between pretense and practice. Though we continue to pay lip service to the myth of the independent American, we understand it as a fiction—nice for a Friday night with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s but about as relevant to today’s world as a butter churn.

On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, the Brits have become, in large part, what we were once supposed to be. Consider, for starters, the unavoidable (if largely symbolic) fact that our president lives ensconced in a palace, while 10 Downing Street is a row house. From there, consider the regal arrogance of the president and the president’s men: their refusal to justify or explain policy, or abide by the Constitution, or respond to the concerns of Congress. Next, consider the spectacle presented by the president’s “meetings with the people,” when he deigns to have them. Consider the extent to which he is scripted, buffered, coddled; the extent to which his audiences are screened to assure that they consist of cheerleaders whose “questions” are nothing more than praise couched in the shape of a question, or who don’t even bother with the interrogative form and, like one woman at a Bush “rally,” walk up to the microphone and say things like “my heroes have always been cowboys,” then sit down to thunderous applause.

More? Recall an average press conference: the president striding to the podium, his slightly irritated, patronizing manner. Recall the press corps’ sycophantic chuckling at every half-assed quip, its willingness to accept the most insulting answers, its downright Prufrockian (“and how should we presume”) inability to challenge an obvious untruth. Consider the fundamental inequality implicit in the fact that the president is always addressed as “Mr. President,” while septuagenarian journalists are invariably “Tom” or “Judy.” Survey the whole sad spectacle, soup to nuts, then dare to consider what the alternative might look like.

To indulge this fantasy, look up one of the question-and-answer programs on the BBC and watch a prime minister sweat, literally, while answering questions from an audience specially selected, according to the New York Times, to assure that its members “are tough and knowledgeable.” Or take in one of the many lengthy press conferences, noting in particular how seriously the PMs take the process, or how, on being told that they haven’t answered the question precisely, they apologize (apologize!) and try again. But why stop there? Make it hurt. Look up the session in which former Prime Minister Tony Blair appears in front of a live audience whose indignant members demand an apology from him for going to war, and respond to his answers, as one woman did, with “That’s rubbish, Tony.”

Now recall that steel tycoon who, upon accidentally addressing the president as “Mr. Truman” rather than “Mr. President,” was never able to forgive himself for the breach of etiquette. Which one is the citizen, and which the subject?

The real problem we face is not the Bush Administration’s imperial pretensions, its quasi-cultish stress on loyalty, or its instinctive suspicion of debate and dissent but the extent to which the administration’s modus operandi is representative of a society increasingly conversant with the protocols of subservience. In the long term, it is this tilt toward deference, this willingness to hold our tongues and sit on our principles, that truly threatens us, even more than the manifold abuses of this administration, because it makes them possible.

Over a century and a half after its publication, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has largely calcified into a reference work, a Bartlett’s Quotations for journalists in a hurry. To those who still bother to read it, however, it offers something invaluable—a chance to plot our position on the road from, or to, despotism. Like any map, Tocqueville’s simply charts the terrain between two points—call them freedom and tyranny. Which direction we happen to be traveling, and how quickly, is up to us to determine; which “goal” we are currently approaching is the question at hand.

It’s not a difficult question to answer. On the contrary, unless one has been in a deep sleep for the past seven years, the answer is glaringly obvious. Tyranny isn’t something up ahead; it’s right here. It’s in the soil, in the very air we breathe. It’s the other climate change, and no less real. The old tyranny, from which we emerged as a nation, has been transformed by the wonder-working ways of time and advertising into a powdered wig, a tricorn hat, and the God-given freedom to burn hot dogs; the new tyranny, meanwhile—infinitely more dangerous, Made in America—looms just ahead, so large as to be very nearly invisible.

Why haven’t we noticed? Perhaps we’re too busy, or too stupid, to recognize the political beast when it stands before us, slavering in the road. Perhaps we’re so confused by the rope-a-dope tactics of our would-be dictators—just look at them, falling back into winking buffoonery one moment, attacking the enemies of righteousness the next—that we don’t quite know what to think.

There’s another possibility. Maybe we’re not out on the street protesting this administration’s abuses of power because we’re no longer the people we once were, because we’ve been effectively bred for docility. Equality, Tocqueville pointed out, “insinuates deep into the heart and mind of every man some vague notion and some instinctive inclination toward political freedom.” And inequality? Might it not, by precisely the same calculus, insinuate “some instinctive inclination” toward political tyranny? Of course it might. Once the idea of inequality is allowed to take root, a veritable forest of ritualized gestures and phrases springs up to reinforce it. The notion that some bow and others are bowed to comes to seem natural; the cool touch of the floor against our forehead begins to feel right: from classroom to corporate cubicle to the halls of Congress, deferential way leads on to deferential way, and at the end of the road, as Tocqueville foresaw, stands a baaa-ing polity “reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

Lincoln had it right: “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” We’re off to a fine start.

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