Wednesday, August 08, 2007

We are children

Digby reports that
They [Republican and Democratic politicians and party leaders] treat us like children, never asking our permission, assuming that we are so desperate to be "safe" from the boogeyman that we just want to crawl up in Big Brother's big ole lap and snuggle up for a long sleep while they take care of all the "bad guys."
She's right, and they're right: we are desperate to be "safe"; we do want to crawl up in Big Brother's lap; we are children. This is not an insult or a slam, just the observation of truth.

We cannot count on "the people" to save us from tyranny. Most people, like children, believe what they're told by someone they believe to be an authority, priest or politician. Like children, exercise of the rational mind is directed to constructing ex post facto rationalizations justifying the pronouncements of external authority. And, like children, most people are cruel and vengeful by nature: They need only to be told by their authorities that it is safe and acceptable to hate those they fear to wreak savage vengeance on them. It is—at least in a rational society—the role of institutional authorities, like parents, to check these natural sadistic reactions, to inculcate empathy, and to teach rationality.

None of our institutions are presently filling this role; it's unclear, at least in the United States, whether they ever have; I suspect their systemic failure has been masked for two centuries by the massive influx of wealth. No irrational, incompetent, or abusive parent is fun, but a rich abuser is far more survivable to a poor one. But we no longer have the luxury of massive new wealth, and the speed at which our society is crumbling speaks volumes to the weakness of our institutions.

It's slightly incorrect of digby to assert that we, like children, want to be safe. What we really want is to be loved, and the promise of safety is (or so most children conceive it to be) surer and more direct evidence of love than its actuality. It is tough enough for a parent with but a few children to walk the fine line between loving, nurturing and protecting his or her children and promoting and encouraging their autonomy. Lean too far to the left, and your children are infantilized; lean too far to the right and they're independent but only at the price of bitterness and neurosis. How much harder it must be, then, for an institution, itself peopled mostly by children, to walk that line.

We have evolved some characteristics of our brains, some social and cultural elements, that serve to both push and ease the transition from individual childhood to adulthood. We are still in the process—early in the process—of evolving social and cultural elements to push and ease the transition to political adulthood.

Were we already political adults, Arthur Silber's measures (mostly ordinary forms of political activism) would serve to reverse the slide into authoritarianism that is going to characterize the next generation. But if we were already political adults, the slide would not have happened, or would have been reversed long ago. Were our institutions themselves "adult" in some abstract sense the slide likewise would not have started. But neither is true. We are merely a group of children out of Lord of the Flies, and we have reached the economic limits of our island; growth can no longer compensate for our individual and institutional immaturity.

What is to be done? In the short term, nothing. The slide into authoritarianism is, at this point, inevitable. It will take at least a generation for things to get bad enough that the people will resist out of immediate material self-interest rather than abstract morality. The real choice for the few true adults in our society at this point is to prepare ourselves for what will happen in the next generation. There are three possibilities: We could, like Tsarist Russia, trade one tyranny for another. We could, like the Soviet Union, passively await the collapse of the government from mounting incompetence and cede effective rule to the criminals. Or we could make preparations and, when the government does fall from incompetence, be ready to step in with more rational, sensible and adult institutions.


  1. I disagree slightly: The one thing I've learned in working with adolescents and teens over the years is that they want, more than anything, to know what their place is. We're like any pack animal in that sense: We need to know who's in charge, or we're going to feel anxiety. We cam be the one in charge, but if we're not, someone else damn well better be.

    Knowing one is loved is another sense of that same security and belonging.

  2. whiskeyjack8/8/07, 1:22 PM

    "The slide into authoritarianism is, at this point, inevitable."

    Having read Bob Altmeyer's 'The Authoritarians', I find that prospect extremely depressing. Why is it that this generation is willing to put up with it? Hasn't the appalling record of the current crop of authoritarians been enough to warrant some optimism?

    I, for one, hope that enough people get alarmed enough to prevent the further encroachment of the authoritarians.

  3. James: The one thing I've learned in working with adolescents and teens over the years is that they want, more than anything, to know what their place is.

    Good point. I stand corrected.

    whiskeyjack: I have indeed read The Authoritarians; I flogged it mercilessly when it came out.

    I, for one, hope that enough people get alarmed enough...

    I hope so too, but I'm not holding my breath. Without the support of any of our institutions, we can no more count on "enough people" than Winston Smith could count on the proletariat.


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