TCS Daily


My "Bush-ite Cheerleading"

By Lee Harris - February 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Imagine how you would feel if you had just become the proud parent of a bouncing baby boy, and you suddenly discovered that people you did not know from Adam were publishing critical reviews about your child's most intimate parts, with many of them written in a decidedly snide and hostile tone. Now take this and multiply it by authorial vanity -- the most powerful force known to man -- and you will have a dim sensation of how someone feels whose book has just seen the light of day.

This is the experience I am currently going through, and I would tell you the name of the book, except that I don't want you to suspect me of entertaining low motives in writing this article, such as trying to inveigle you into buying my book; and in order to prove this to you, I will not mention the title of my book a single instance throughout this essay. It will be the furthest thing from my mind, and I hope from yours as well.

The first review was faxed to me from my publishing house (which, of course, I will refrain from naming), preceded by a warning from my editor (who will remain nameless) to take several xanax before reading it. The reviewer began by calling my (unnamed) book "Civics 101," and concluded with words to the effect: "If Bush-ite cheerleading is your bag, then this [title omitted] book is for you."

This cheerleading metaphor perplexed me a bit, until I realized that my reviewer had probably never looked at the picture of me that is so gratefully posted at the head of every article I write for TCS, since if he had, the image of me as a cheerleader might not have sprung so quickly to his mind -- as I sincerely hope it does not spring to yours. But I think his message was that I was mindlessly supporting the current President.

Now stripped of those unsightly cheerleader images, I must confess that the reviewer has a point; I am, to a degree, mindlessly supporting the current President, but not because he is this particular current President, but because he is our only current President: we are permitted only one at a time, and I firmly believe that the one we happen to have at any particular time is owed a certain amount of mindless and automatic support on the part of the American people, simply because without a solid body of instinctive trust and loyalty, the office of the President would become completely unmanageable.

To see this, think of any person who is in a position of leadership -- the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, the boss of a small car repair shop, the captain of a platoon. How well could any of these leaders manage their position of leadership if they could not take for granted that those to whom they gave orders would automatically follow them? Imagine what it would be like to lead a company of men into battle if you had to explain to each of them why you were their commander each and every time you issued them a particular command. To have to explain to someone why you have the right to boss him around, before he will obey you, is to render the transaction costs of leadership prohibitively burdensome in the smallest business or the tiniest military unit, and completely insupportable at the other end of the scale: there is simply no way for a national leader, such as the American President, to address himself personally to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the nation he is trying to lead. The rest -- or at least the bulk of the rest -- must be predisposed to accept the legitimacy of his authority without reflecting on the question, "Why does this particular man have this authority?"

St. Augustine to the Rescue

One of the decisive moments in the making of the West occurred in Northern Africa circa 500 A.D. It was not a great military battle, but rather a battle of words and ideas. A group of devout Christians, called the Donatists, had argued that Catholic priests who had renounced the Christian faith during the last flurry of Roman persecution should be barred from administering the Holy Sacraments, such as baptism and celebrating the mass. A sinful or backsliding priest, the Donatists argued, was no longer a genuine priest at all: he might go through the motions of baptizing you or giving you the last rites, but it was all in vain.

But, if that were so, how could you ever be certain that you had really been baptized, or that the mass you had attended was a genuine mass, and not merely a hideous mockery of one?

You couldn't be certain -- that was the answer given to the Donatists by St. Augustine; and that answer, to his mind, was crushing. If the efficacy of the sacraments depended on the personal merits of the man who happened to be administering them, then the institution of the Catholic Church would collapse. Why? Because each individual would have to decide, on his own initiative, which priests were really priests, and which ones weren't. But the same logic that applied to priests would naturally apply all the way up the hierarchy of the church. Thus, if an archbishop commanded a parish priest to do something, the priest would always have the option of questioning the validity of this command in light of the personal merit or demerit of the individual giving it. All would become chaos.

St. Augustine bit the bullet. With ruthless logic, he saw that any alternative, no matter how counterintuitive, would have to be preferable to a solution that destroyed the very possibility of the church as a stable, orderly, and hierarchical institution. If it meant that a drunken child-molesting priest could still administer the Holy Sacraments just as effectively as if his soul had been as pure as St. Francis of Assisi's, then so be it. There was no other choice.

No other choice, that is, if one wishes to stay within the tradition established by the Roman Empire, which was where St. Augustine drew his inspiration. In this tradition a man's office was clearly distinguished from his personal qualities, or what the German sociologist Max Weber called his charisma. A man did not need to have any outstanding talents or virtues or charms or skills in order to justify his right to issue commands; he possessed this right solely through his possession of his office. And this meant that those whom he commanded needed only to consult his office, and had no business analyzing his personal fitness to hold this office: if his office gave him the authority to command, then that was all that mattered.

The Islamic World

How important was this development? Just look at the Islamic world and you will immediately have your answer.

In Muslim communities, authority is a personal possession; it is not something on temporary loan to you from a self-perpetuating institution, but something you can achieve in your own right. Those around you day in, day out, have come to respect you for your personal qualities -- your piety or your Koranic learning; your charisma and loyalty; your trustworthiness as a friend; your personal virtues, such as sobriety and mercifulness. And it is on the basis of this intensely personal knowledge of you as a concrete human being that your authority, if you have any, entirely rests.

Now what is wrong with this?

Actually nothing at all is wrong with it. Indeed, at first glance it would appear to make far more sense than our own strange system. If two men claim to have religious authority over us, shouldn't we prefer the man whom we have seen with our own eyes exercising all the virtues associated with holiness, as opposed to a debauched pervert who simply happens to be in a position of institutional authority?

Stated like this, we should have no trouble sympathizing with the Muslim position; and yet this should not keep us from recognizing the drawbacks inextricably associated with it; and these drawbacks all stem from the phrase "seen with our own eyes."

How much of human nature, or of men, can we see with our own eyes? Our family and friends, our neighbors, our business associates, our academic colleagues, our teammates -- but beyond that our own eyes do not take us very far. But if my only way of deciding whether someone is worthy to occupy a position of authority is to have examined him with my own eyes, then I will only be able to recognize the authority of an extraordinarily limited number of human persons.

Scale matters; and in this case, it matters tremendously. Because if each member of my community is similarly limited to acknowledging the authority of only those he has seen with his own eyes, then there can be no hierarchical form of organized life beyond the most rudimentary stages. I will be willing to take commands from other people, but only those whose merit I can personally testify to; and this renders all large scale systems of organization completely impossible.

But if I am willing to trust only a handful of people to exercise authority over me, and everyone else in my society feels the same way, then how does any single man begin to exercise authority over all of us, when the "us" in question is an entire nation, made up of millions of people, each of whom is limited to knowing intimately only those in his immediate neighborhood? How does a leader, confronted by such an obstacle, establish his preemptive claim to be obeyed? It cannot be based on an intimate personal knowledge of his merits, since only a small minority of the population will ever get a chance to know him in this way, so it must be based on something else.

Cults of Personality and Terror

There are only two choices for a leader placed in this dilemma. He must rule through a cult of personality, or through terror -- or, of course, subtle combinations of these two principles.

The cult of personality is designed to convey a false sense of intimacy with the person in authority: by seeing the friendly and open face of Stalin on every other street corner, or that of Saddam Hussein waving affably from every building, we gradually become convinced that we really know what this man is like, much the way soap opera fans really believe that they know what the actors on their favorite shows must be like at home.

Yet even the most industrious cult of personality cannot make political ends meet unless it holds on to its ultimate trump card, and this is the application of terror as a method of procuring obedience to its authority. Those who do not obey willingly must be forced to obey at their own peril.

This is why a bit of mindless cheerleading is not too high of a price to pay in order to permit our own peculiar system to operate -- because it is a system that will only work provided that most of the three hundred million people who make it up are spontaneously willing to trust in the authority of a man whom they have never met, and to obey unhesitatingly the commands of a leader that they may personally despise.

In short, I have no problem with being called a Bushite cheerleader, provided that those who call me that understand that I will be just as willing to be a Kerry-ite cheerleader if the occasion should arise, and John Kerry were to become our Commander-in-Chief, or even a Hillary-ite cheerleader, if it comes down to that.

Respect for Beliefs

Does this mean that I would agree with whatever a President Kerry or a President Rodham-Clinton did?

Of course, not. But then, I have not agreed with President Bush on everything either. A year and a half ago, in the very first piece I wrote for Policy Review, I urged a reconsideration of the war metaphor and questioned the President's decision to try to exorcise the demon of suicide bombers by renaming them homicide bombers. I also disagreed with the President's effort to justify the invasion of Iraq in terms of WMD's that Saddam Hussein actually had in his possession; and in my TCS essay, "Our World Historical Gamble," I developed my entire case against Saddam on the supposition that he could obtain nuclear weapons by merely buying them from third party agents willing to sell them for a price. Indeed, thanks to our increased intelligence concerning the international black-market for nuclear spare parts, the case that could be made today is far stronger than the one I made nearly a year ago. Indeed, my own gut feeling, for the little that it is worth, was that if Saddam Hussein had possessed nuclear weapons, we would have long since discovered their whereabouts in the most spectacular way possible -- by their detonation in harbor of New York or the port of San Francisco.

Finally, I have repeatedly questioned the neo-conservatives' noble, but quixotic dream of trying to bring democracy to an Iraq that lacks the objective cultural conditions for it, and have strongly suggested that we bite the bullet and put a man in power who was as favorable to the United States as possible, and do what it took to keep him there -- all in the belief that this would be the best possible outcome for Iraq, the international Muslim community, the USA, and the rest of the world.

But, in going over the above litany of proffered advice, let me stress the all important role of those gentle words "urged," "disagreed," "questioned" and "suggested." These are words that indicate respect for the beliefs of those whose mind you are trying to change, and are explicitly chosen for the single purpose of making it more likely that they will change their minds, as opposed to less likely. They are the words used by reasonable men and women when they come together to discuss high and weighty questions, and are far preferable to words that are designed to belittle, revile, and anger -- at least, if you are interested in changing the world, rather than merely bellowing at it.

They are also the words that I would use to convey any disagreement that I might happen to have with a President Kerry, or a President Edwards, or yet another President Clinton. Yet such disagreements would never keep me from cheering them on, just as they have not kept me from cheering on George Bush. Indeed, I will support them with equal zeal when and if their time comes to take up the awful duty of the Presidency, and if I disagree with them, I find myself once more in the peculiar position of hoping that I shall be shown to be wrong, and the President with whom I disagree will be shown to be right; because all that is bruised when I am wrong is my ego. But when a President of the United States is wrong, we all suffer.

The Office of the President

In sum, it is the office of the President that deserves our mindless support, and not the particular occupant of that office. As a flesh-and-blood concrete individual, the President may be a frail reed, or scoundrel, or a lustful wanton; but as the Head of State, he is our leader, and we must be willing to follow him -- at least up until a certain point, or, more correctly, up to an uncertain point, since there is no way to specify in advance at what point we simply have to throw up our hands in despair and say, "I can no longer give this man the benefit of the doubt. He has betrayed his office."

Many of us, sadly, are reaching this point far too quickly, and while persuaded that we are only attacking the man, we are unwittingly undermining the office. Many Republicans, no doubt in good faith, did this with Bill Clinton, just as many Democrats, no doubt in equally good faith, are now doing it with George Bush. Each side is convinced that the other started it, and are probably both right. But whoever started it, those who wish to continue it need to recognize what a dangerous game they are playing -- and what the alternatives are to the peculiar system that has served us so well for so long. A little more cheerleading, and a little less mudslinging, would serve us all well, no matter whose candidate happens to sit in the oval office.

Now I hope you are finally convinced that I wrote this essay without the slightest hint of a desire to plug my recently published book, and I sincerely hope that my example will be a shining inspiration for all those other authors who have recently published books themselves, especially the ones who are asked to make frequent television appearances and whose names are actually recognizable by the average American book buyer. Indeed, it is my fondest hope that if one day our CIVILIZATION defeats ITS ENEMIES, that THE NEXT STAGE OF HISTORY will be one in which authors will not shamelessly plug their books at every opportunity. If so, please remember who took the first step in that direction.

Lee Harris is a TCS contributing editor. You can find his new book in major book stores and at Amazon.com.


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