Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Megan McArdle is giving me a discussion of authoritarianism for Christmas. I'm so excited! How did she know it was exactly what I wanted?

Right now we have only the teaser; a quote from Julian Sanchez about authoritarianism and the bailouts. I do not know anything about Mr. Sanchez except McArdle's excerpts, but those glimpses aren't exactly impressive. Money quote:

The only question is whether workers in a particular industry are naughty
children who need to be sent to the corner for a time-out, or well-behaved
children who should get a gold sticker for effort. This is, as I hope goes
without saying, a pretty authoritarian frame on either side.

No, Mr. Sanchez. Authoritarianism is not the same thing as what you would probably call the nanny state. The word has an actual definition, and if you and McArdle are going to discuss it, it would be nice if you looked it up. I don't say that to sneer. I very frequently look up common words, because they tend to gain various shades of meaning over the years and it's easy to misunderstand someone's particular interpretation.

When looking at political authoritarianism I use the definition of Bob Altemeyer, University of Manitoba professor.

Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in
their society, such as government officials and traditional religious
leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life,
the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most
authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities

1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate
authorities in
their society;

2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities;

3) a high level of conventionalism.

Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these
followers rightwing authoritarians. I’m using the word “right” in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said. (And when someone did the lawful thing back then, maybe the authorities said,
with a John Wayne drawl, “You got that riht, pilgrim!”) 1 (Click on a note’s number to have it appear.)

In North America people who submit to the established authorities
to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, 2 so
you can call them “right-wingers” both in my new-fangled psychological
sense and in the usual political sense as well. But someone who lived in a
country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist
Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even
though we would also say he was a political left-winger. So a right-wing
authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political
views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established
authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly
conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics. Rightwing authoritarianism is a personality trait, like being characteristically bashful or happy or grumpy or dopey.

You could have left-wing authoritarian followers as well, who support a
revolutionary leader who wants to overthrow the establishment. I knew a few
in the 1970s, Marxist university students who constantly spouted their chosen
authorities, Lenin or Trotsky or Chairman Mao. Happily they spent most of
their time fighting with each other, as lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of
Brian where the People’s Front of Judea devotes most of its energy to
battling, not the Romans, but the Judean People’s Front. But the left-wing
authoritarians on my campus disappeared long ago. Similarly in America “the
Weathermen” blew away in the wind. I’m sure one can find left-wing
authoritarians here and there, but they hardly exist in sufficient numbers
now to threaten democracy in North America. However I have found bucketfuls of
right-wing authoritarians in nearly every sample I have drawn in Canada and the
United States for the past three decades. So when I speak of “authoritarian followers” in this book I mean right-wing authoritarian followers, as identified by the RWA scale.

That's a lot of definition, but both parties must agree on basics before discussions. I would add one aspect, maybe correction: While certain personalities might be more amenable to authoritarianism, it is something installed during childhood, by one's parents. Parents who demand absolute obedience, forbid questioning and disagreement, and refuse to acknowledge the separate identity of their child are authoritarian, and their children, who want love and acceptance, obey and grow to demand obedience in turn from their own children. Authoritarian children who are eventually thwarted in their need to control others as they were controlled can become very dangerous, as these incredibly strong drives send them outward, to either find someone to obey or force strangers to obey them.

Liberals can be authoritarians also, but tend to only get mild versions of the disease. Rigid people are not drawn to the amorphous, unfettered nature and goals of Democrats. They want rigid rules to follow, so they will know that they are correct in their behavior. They demand that nothing around them changes, for they can't cope with change. It was never allowed, and now it is unfamiliar and frightening. Liberal authoritarians, who also cling to authorities such as a religious, political or cultural group, however, are still authoritarians. They wouldn't side with the workers because the workers are not the leaders; management and the owners are. The "naughty children" aren't in charge, and insisting that they need help isn't authoritarianism.

Megan promises more, and I wait with bated breath.


Anonymous said...

Megan McArdle is giving me a discussion of authoritarianism....


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post. I completely agree. Neither of these nits has any idea what the term means. I'm a little bit older than McArdle, but I'm fully aware of Jean Kirkpatrick's silly distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian," the latter awful, the former great. Megan is completely clueless--once again.

Susan of Texas said...

McArdle wields the 2x4 of stupidity!

FrankO, no doubt they are accusing liberals of doing what they are doing to muddle the issue. Unfortunately the only way I can think of to counteract this is to add to the confusion, since trying to explain facts and logic doesn't work.

Is is possible to wrestle back control of the launguage when it's turned into a weapon? William Safire's etymology columns are usually attempts to twist words to mean what he wants them to mean. I'm not sure how to counteract this.