Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hey, Pleb - Why Aren't You Kissing The Ring?

Yesterday, when I was spending a ridiculous amount of time troubleshooting a server, I missed a lecture from David Brooks in whose view our nation, it seems, is no longer sufficiently deferential to authority. After an odd sort of introduction in which he complaints that modern memorials tend to humanize rather than deify their subjects, Brooks asks, "Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?" And by "memorial designers" he appears to mean "average Americans".
Some of the reasons are well-known. We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.

Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.

But the main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.
I disagree with Brooks' initial premise. We live in a culture that, on the whole, idolizes fame, wealth and power. We have an enormous population of celebrities who are "famous for being famous", people with little to no skill or talent beyond attracting media attention. From the Kardashians to Joe the Plumber, they're not necessarily bad people but they have nothing to offer beyond their fame. We assume that anybody who has become wealthy or who has succeeded in business is admirable and worthy. And yes, that extends to politics. You need look no further than the host of mediocre politicians who sought the Republican presidential nomination - and were taken seriously.

I am not sure what to make of Brooks' second point, save for this: If Brooks could make a genuine case that we're tearing down "others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves", he would provide an example. It's fair to say we're living in a very polarized time, and that there's a strong partisan effort to tear down individuals and politicians associated with "the other side", but that's far from new or unique to this era. It's fair to say that we know more about people of prominence than we did in the past, and that it's easier to deify a business or political leader if you don't know about his quirks and foibles - but although it may be easier to imagine that somebody is "immeasurably superior to ourselves" if we don't know the facts, it's not unreasonable to judge a person based upon facts instead of myths.

Really, in this context it would be helpful for Brooks to clue us in, by naming at least one individual whom he concedes to be "immeasurably superior to" himself.

In terms of a "fervent devotion to equality", Brooks may not realize this but one place you can get the idea that "all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect" is... wait for it... the Declaration of Independence - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...." One might also note that the preamble to the Constitution does not begin, "We the others who are immeasurably superior to you...." Brooks may believe that to be the subtext, "Ha ha, let's pull one over on the plebs and suggest that they're our equals", but even if he truly believes that language to be a conceit it would be absurd for him to simultaneously pretend that no prior generation "fell for it".

Further, the concept of true equality is not dominant in our culture. When you hear demagoguery about "liberal elites", the neglect of "flyover country", whether the President is a "full-blooded American", and the like, that's about building a sense of superiority in the target audience. Perhaps Brooks means that we should attempt to be more objective when assessing ourselves, but there's no shortage of judgment in our society when it comes to assessing others.

Brooks complains that the slogan, "question authority" is used indiscriminately - questioning not only bad authority - perhaps the authority that led us into war in Vietnam - but also good authority - perhaps the authority that led us into war in Iraq? As with sharing the identity of his superiors, examples would strengthen his argument - or reveal its incoherence.

Brooks complains that Americans perceive "elites" as self-interested. He does not define that term, and his separate reference to "public servants" makes it clear that he's not simply talking about elected officials. In what sphere other than politics would he have us believe that the "elites" are looking out for the rest of us? Should we look to the historic leaders of the tobacco, energy and financial industries? The entertainment industry? Are we being too hard on media elites, such as Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black? Egad. You don't have to assume that they're hiding something to recognize that they're people, and that they very often put their incomes and stock options ahead of the interest of their own companies, let alone the general public. I'll concede - Rupert Murdoch is "immeasurably superior" to me in terms of his ability to identify and exploit economic opportunities, but beyond that he's a terribly flawed human being. Should I close my eyes to that truth?

And what of politicians? When Mitch McConnell declared that "the single most important thing we [the Republican elite] want to achieve" is to make President Obama a one-term President, should I take him at his word? Or not? Because if I take him at his word, how can I avoid viewing him as a flawed human being, looking out for position and power even if it harms the country? And if I think of him as lying, how is it not his fault that people assume that he means what he says instead of assuming that he has glorious, positive motives and intentions that he hides from us?

Nonetheless, Brooks states, "I don’t know if America has a leadership problem...." Seriously? He can be a card-carrying member of a party that is led by McConnell, and that flirted with the idea of President Gingrich and President Santorum, and still wonder?

You can argue that McConnell makes it easy - that he's the low-hanging fruit - but really, if I'm not supposed to look at McConnell who's left to deify? John Boehner? Am I supposed to deify Mitt Romney, who technically has not yet even won his party's nomination, based upon his past ten years of self-aggrandizement and political campaigning? Just assume, perhaps because he's rich and has the right pedigree?

Daniel Larison refutes Brooks' notion that the Tea Party and OWS movements are leaderless, and responds,
What bothers Brooks about these movements is not that they reject all authority, but that they have weighed the claims to authority made by the current political class and found them badly wanting. These people probably haven’t concluded that they are “better than everyone else around them.” They are reasonably sure that their leaders are worse than they should be. If they are more cynical now than before, it could have something to do with the complete lack of accountability for the people most responsible for the calamities of the last ten years.
Not just ten years, though. The Watergate scandal broke in 1974. And any comment on increased cynicism toward government should acknowledge that the Republican Party has made a deliberate effort over recent decades to attack the motives, competency, and utility of government.

Brooks argues that our nation needs more "good followers", those who "recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it". As stated, that's not unreasonable. If you are governed by a "just authority", you can no doubt find many admirable aspects, worthy of gratitude and emulation. The problem is that Brooks implies that the "just authority" we should be grateful for is that of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Mitt Romney. And through it all, while Brooks has no problem condescending to the masses for their failure to defer to those "others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves", one senses that Brooks has no trouble placing himself near - and perhaps even at - the apex of "others who are immeasurably superior to" you.

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