Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dead Horse, Dead Rider

Son, get off your knees. --Steve Gilliard

David Brooks' column, in which he scold the peasants for lack of reverence for the divine right of kings, has been beaten to a pulp but try as I might, I can't ignore a plea for greater authoritarianism.

Brooks began by lamenting that the nation no longer builds monuments to the glory of America's greatness.
Why can’t today’s memorial designers think straight about just authority?
Authoritarianism is the straight, the right  way, and Brooks does not understand why everyone else isn't falling into line, as God and nature intended. Dividing authority between just and injust is merely a transparent attempt at deflection; for authoritarians, all authority is just and, as we will see, Brooks thinks people who protest injustice are just whiners.

Obedient, subservient people are frightened by the thought of disobedience. It threatens the basis for their entire worldview. There is a hierarchy and everyone has his place on that hierarchy. The hierarchy was given to us by God and instilled in us by our parents, to whom we owe absolute obedience as well. If we do not obey our parents/gods will be angry with us. Anti-authoritarianism offers uncertainty, poverty and isolation. Authoritarianism offers security, the promise of money at some time in the future, and the consolation and pleasure of belonging to the (weak, obedient) tribe. And, much more practically, if offers money. Otherwise Brooks would not be crouching under the rich man's table, mouth wide open and watery eyes expectant, to catch any crumbs that happen to fall. Obedient--nay, Godly--people are rewarded for their loyalty.

It is perfectly obvious who has money and therefore the authority and who does not. The left has no money at all compared to the corporate right. Exxon funded Reason, not Greenpeace. The Koches fund libertarians, not liberals. America is not just conservative because it is authoritarian, it is conservative because conservatives promise to "leave more money in your pocket." Conservatives must have a carrot as well as a stick, after all.
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.
We live in a culture that worships power and thinks it natural to kill anyone who displeases us. Brookes's tribe, who also live on their knees, tell themselves that they are victims of the powerless because they are afraid to admit they are the victims of their authority and because they want to continue exerting authority over anyone with less power than them. After using others to feel powerful, keeping slaves "for their own good," controlling women "to keep them safe," abusing children to force them to learn fear and automatic obedience, authoritarians claim they are the victims in an attempt to deflect attention and alleviate guilt and responsibility.
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.
This is the money quote, the reason David Brooks lives in a multi-million dollar house and you don't. He can state with a straight face that not everyone deserves respect, not everyone is equal. Some are "immeasurably superior to ourselves." The lickspittle must lick spit.
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.
We have a choice, to either give away all our power to one man or small group of men, or to share power amongst our fellow man. Shared power is less corruptible. It forces us to acknowledge that we are only as good as our actions. To wield power is to wield force, and force always crushes those under its power. Why not? The little people owe their betters obedience, right? Who are they to question the powerful?
These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.
God forbid. Literally.

There is no just and unjust authority. There is power, and either we let the rich have it all or we demand our equal share.
The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves.
Who has the money now and who doesn't? We don't have to theorize, we just have to look at the massive transfer of wealth that just happened.
Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.
How dare you, in your arrogance, think you are as good as your authority? Authoritarians love this approach because they think liberals are afraid to seem arrogant.

Has there ever been such a naked appeal to authority? (K-Lo excepted, of course.) David Brooks is now "Knees" Brooks, because he is always on them, the better to abase himself before his betters. Grovel, little man!
You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.
Grind those $500 trousers into the dirt as you wiggle your tail!
Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.
Sadly this is more true than not; many liberals think that we do owe our leaders our trust. We do not owe our president anything. He is our public servant, we are not his.
I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.
What could be more cynical than accusing someone of vanity when he is only trying to protect his own rights? Might we have had a reason for becoming more cynical? I watched Watergate updates in between episodes of Josie and the Pussycats and Scooby Doo as a kid. It takes willful blindness to retain worship of authority under those conditions.

I also learned to mistrust anyone named Old Man Withers, but that is another story.
In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.
How much is David Brooks learning from his position on the ground? What should we be studying--how to run unsuccessful wars? Destroy the economy and the middle class? Shove more people into poverty and dependence? And then demand admiration, respect and obedience?
To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.
To bad they are not the skills needed to have a good country.

David Brooks' sycophancy is sickening and he deserve every bit of the scorn that has been heaped on him for this column. If he wants to make a living by bowing and scraping before his betters that's his right but all he is doing is humiliating himself.


zombie rotten mcdonald said...

To have good leaders you have to have good followers —

No. No, you don't. A friend of mine had a better sound bite: "If you don't need a leader, you probably are one." Leaders are defined by leading, by example. Not by wealth.

able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.

No. No they are not.

The 'just authority' thing is also quite plainly a dogwhistle to allow the whole thing to ultimately rest at the feet of the White Man's God.

This thing is like the worst Bobo column in a career of writing awful things. Bobo Quintessence. It is being widely mocked and beaten with shovels, but really really deserves it. And perhaps David Brooks does too.

Anonymous said...

Well, lessee...Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Enron, Long Term Capital Management, Iraq II, Afghanistan....among others...

"Immeasurably superior?" "Those who are extraordinary?" Gee, Dave, settin' the bar kinda low, aren't you?

Well, of course you would. You had a hand in a good many of those "elite triumphs" yourself. I mean, as someone who is "immeasurably superior" to littlepeople, ya want recognition for all those noble acts, right? And our deference and gratitude too? Seriously?

Susan of Texas said...

And now Bobo will rush to scold Neil Munro for his disrespect....

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Bobo has a big house, and we don't.

Susan of Texas said...

Therefore he must be right and we must be wrong. It's the American way.

Kathy said...

The right shows very little "respect" for scientific authorities, particularly Climate Specialists. Or doctors & scientists who say birth control pills & Plan B are NOT abortifacients. Or teachers, or the Social Security Administration.

It isn't respect-for-authority Books wants, it's total, fawning, subservience to Power & Wealth. Just look how well its worked for him! If everyone licked spittle like Brooks does, we'd all have 5 million dollar mansions.

Susan of Texas said...

Or Victorian row houses!

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Bobo has a big house,

But it's very poorly designed.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

It has large spaces for entertaining...squirrels.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

For once, I am on the side of the skwirlz.

The squirrels will be softening the perimeter in advance of the zombie hordes.

Mr.Wonderful said...

It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.

Yes, if there's one thing we lack, it's a sufficiently vigorous culture of celebrity. Successful people and powerful people just aren't recognized enough in our benightedly egalitarian nation.

THIS, to me, is the money quote, i.e., the most obviously false and therefore shamelessly mendacious line in the whole mess. Zombie R.M. is right: it's the worst Brooks column ever, in a lengthy history of awful, awful columns.

Ghost of Joe Liebling's Dog said...

Now and then I remember how much I miss "the site that set out to bring the media to its knees -- only to find out they were already there."

Downpuppy said...

Media Whores Online? Ah yes. I miss Smirking Chimp 1.0, and my beloved Thomas Friedman Breakdown Watch.

I surveyed The Atlantic so you don't have to - so you don't have to.

That place has gotten seriously dull.

Unknown said...

i loved. the horse, and the chimp. i miss them.

now that i'm waxing blogger nostalgic, i'll take this moment to let everyone know that in about 3 weeks skippy international will be celebrating 10 years of contiguous blogging.

Batocchio said...

That column can't be skewered enough, and I'm glad you added your take. Because Brooks is always defending plutocracy, the aristocracy, the Republican Party, and conservatism – and because the GOP has gone further right – it seems that Brooks has gone further right as well (in terms of the actual arguments he makes). What used to be subtext in past columns is now explicitly in the text. His commitment is to hackdom on behalf of aristocrats, and that has never changed, but it's a harder sell now. Too many people remember who caused the economic meltdown in 2008, and can smell the bullshit when Brooks blames the victims and lectures them to obey the scoundrels.

Downpuppy said...

Brooks' next column - on the Republicans vision - was even worse. Freddie deBoer at Balloon Juice did a truly Susan-like demolition of it.

Susan of Texas said...

Very nice but could have used more gratuitous insults.

Lurking Canadian said...

I have never in my life come closer to thinking a citizen ought to be prosecuted for treason because of a written text as I did after that Brooks piece.

In my foreign ignorance, I thought "All men are created equal" was a kind of foundational ideal of the US, not an expression of opposition to "just authority".

bulbul said...

He can state with a straight face that not everyone deserves respect, not everyone is equal.
Hey, I can do that as well. I can for example say that Jonah Goldberg doesn't deserve any respect at all and is not worth to lick Susan's /insert footwear item/. Except I don't try to justify this by quoting a holy book or tradition, nor do I try to make it into a law or at least a moral imperative.

I thought "All men are created equal" was a kind of foundational ideal of the US
Yes it is, except what they meant was "rich white men", so Bobo's got the spirit of the quote nailed.

cynic said...

Every time you turn around, *real* leaders have NEVER been rich: Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, MLK Jr.

They have NEVER asked to be followed or demanded obedience of their followers: they simply acted their conscience as individuals.

They never even had sycophants like Brooks asking people to follow them: those who agreed with Gandhi simply showed up.

They never held prominent public position. And when they did, they did not do well: see Mandela, Nelson.

And the NEVER, EVER used the authority their followers conferred on them to demand obedience.

See, that is what I think Brooks misses: if you have to demand reverence, you are not worthy of it.

But used as I am to his fellating of those he counts as his 'betters', I am astonished by the depths he would go to to convince himself that he is a deeply moral man.