Or How Abusive Authority is Not Authority Itself
Most people like to see the world in two sides, x versus y, a linear equation. They would like you to believe that there's a right way, and a wrong way, universally, of doing things. They would like you to believe that some people are evil and some are good. They want you to see anyone with money as bad, and anyone without, as innocent and pure. They also want you to see any authority as oppressive, and any anti-authority as being on the side of fun, freedom, and acceptance. This is the oldest trick in the book: they're trying to lure you into Us Versus Them, and oversimplify the world, so that you can feel good about yourself for joining the "right" side.
Pay attention to both extremist and moderate propaganda. The Republicans want you to think that their position is moral, and anyone else is amoral, and thus lacks the strength to take necessary action (invading Iraq) and will cause society to degenerate. The Democrats want you to believe that those who have money will oppress all others, and that only those who embark on a pity crusade to raise up the lower are correct and moral. Both sides have some truth to them, and if you take their ideas out of linear context, there's a germ of something compatible between them: moral action must be taken, and some are against it. Because they use oversimplification, however, their platforms become blind dogma and have little relevance to the real world.
Extremists do the same thing. In the environmental movement, there are people who would like you to believe that only those who check carefully for dripping faucets, buy organic food and heat their bathrooms with solar energy are right, and everyone else is "blind" and destructive. Neo-Nazi groups preach exactly the same dogma, except their rhetoric is conservation of race. Only those who adopt a strictly racialist view of the world are right, and everyone else is part of the conspiracy. Both groups suffer for their linear outlook, in that both degenerate rapidly into bigotry. Organic buying hippies versus the mass corporate horde; if we just oppress that mass corporate horde, everyone will live comfortably with water conserving toilets and recycled maxipads. Neo-Nazis tend to preach, in a manner guaranteed to alienate all successful people from them, that if we just eliminate Jews/Negroes (Jews being Asiatic- and Negroid-hybridized Caucasians, historically speaking) everything will be okay. Us Versus Them. Good Versus Evil. Right Versus Wrong.
Life isn't designed on a single axis.
There are two problems with the Us Versus Them theory, and they are as follows: first, that a universal, single law can apply to all places - universality, because it must apply a single measurement to diverse areas, is by nature absolutist, and increasingly so as those trying to implement it become defensive. Second, that it polarizes between an Elect and a Preterite, e.g. the Us who are ordained to do what is right, and those who are destined to have it done Unto Them. In Platonic terms - and we all know that Plato's metaphor of the cave was misinterpreted as metaphysical description, in the modern belief "neo-Platonism," when it was a metaphor for the interpretation of knowledge - in the world of appearance, we see only ourselves and a world opposing us so, because of our entrenchment in the self, we tend to contrast between two extremes. What Plato was hinting out however was that we are enslaved by that perspective, and need to rise up out of the cave of our artificial knowledge and look directly at the world as it is, so that we can understand its structure, which is by definition not linear but parallel in form. Some might say this is itself a polarization, but it's not Us Versus Them but a contrast between a simplistic way of viewing the world and a more accurate one. Anyone can pick up either method, thus "Us" and "Them" are not descriptive terms.
One place this can be seen clearly is in our responses to authority. By nature, most of us are anarchistic in emotional outlook, but when it comes time to getting things done, we recognize the need for leadership. This leads to the problem of authority, because someone must not know what the plan is and tell people what to do, but must also give a firm yes or no to their actions. Therein lies one of the paradoxes to society: in order to have the freedom to enjoy what civilization grants, through specialization of labor and the corresponding efficiency of scaling, one must have some kind of authority. Leaders. Sergeants. Cops.
Authority versus Authority Abusive by Design
This concept of authority, in itself, is not abusive. In theory, authority is granted by tacit contract between citizens and the enforcers so that the enforcers can do what is right for the citizens (a group which must include the enforcers as well). When authority does what is beneficial for the citizens, only those who oppose authority are in disagreement; when authority is either abusive, or is applied universally to citizens with different needs, an abuse of authority occurs. At some point what unifies a society is agreement on what authority must do, but when that breaks down, the tendency of most leaders is to become defensive and to try to replace that consensus of authority's purpose with greater authority. The thought is that greater strength can replace citizens who have grown apart in values and, like the same principle applied to a dying romantic relationship, it makes active abusers of authority and passive abusers of those who must submit to it. It is a no-win situation.
Bill White's recent article about speeding tickets brings to mind a powerful example. Speeding tickets are a case of abusive authority because they are motivated by the wrong ideals. Local law enforcement is encouraged to use them as a means of collecting revenue, like a tax, although the original idea was that society could be divided into safe drivers versus reckless drivers. In the first days of traffic legislation, the focus of giving citations was to rack up enough negative points for bad drivers so that they could be forced off the road. Things changed. At the current time, a car is required to get to work, so instead of trying to eliminate bad drivers, the law has mutated to become a bizarre form of taxation on behavior - not the behavior of bad driving, which is open to debate, but a good old linear measurement: speed.
When we say that authority applied universally is defective, we mean in part that not all people are equal. Some can drive safely at seventy miles an hour, where others should drive at fifty or not at all; a driver can be as dangerous driving slowly, and causing traffic pile ups and thus forcing others into bad behavior, as driving quickly. But assessment of speed gives us that good Us Versus Them feeling, where those who drive within the laws are OK and those who go faster are outcasts, amoral and lawless, etc. That the cops who give the tickets are not only taking in money for their departments, but also getting personally closer to promotions and praise, turns this situation of dubious authority into one of predation: cops become predators who find those who, responding to speeding limits designed for the least competent but applied equally to those of all competences, drive faster than the official limit. There is no greater confirmation of this than the tendency of American freeways to have an average road speed of ten to fifteen miles per hour faster than the posted limit.
When we see someone pulled over for speeding, we have initial compassion replaced almost immediately by a sense of Better Them Than Us, because we know that it's a luck of the draw that the person pulled over got caught and we didn't, since in order to function normally in this society we all speed on a regular basis. At this point, what we have is authority that is of a poor design, and thus is abusive. There are many other examples, but speeding tickets are a daily fact of life for all of us who drive anywhere, and it is small feedback loops like citizens annoyed at being taxed for what others equally escape that will contribute to change in our view of authority.
Authority versus Abuse of Authority
Being careful to separate authority itself from abuse of authority does not blind us to recognizing where authority is abused. Authority is both a power, and a responsibility, in that in the role of authority one is a servant of those over which one presides, and must do what is best for them regardless of its popularity. If it is necessary to do more work in less luxurious circumstances, it is a hard sell to the population, but that does not obviate the necessity of that transaction. We all want to hear that we can have more of what we want without much sacrifice, but life often is not compliant, which is fortunate, as to use a simple example, if we ate only desserts and not main courses, we'd be an unhealthy bunch.
Authority is abused when the person in authority acts outside of the social agreement by which the authority was bestowed, using authority instead for reasons of personal enrichment or emotional response. Probably the best example of this in recent memory is the assault on Branch Dravidians in Waco, where a popular president encouraged his forces to attack religious dissidents who also sold rifles. The excuse was that they were violent; the reality seems to be that those in authority resented people disagreeing with them, and decided to crush them, sending all of them and their children to their deaths. While the Branch Dravidians may have been a bit odd, there was no definitive proof that they were dangerous or even committing criminal acts, and in the intervening years, evidence has emerged that suggests they were set up and wholesale murdered by President Clinton and his cohorts for the crime of not going along with his vision of the world. Even if screwing around with his intern was what in theory brought him down, Clinton lost much of his popular support after he decided to incinerate his own citizens with military force. Like most career politicians, his method was to adopt popular viewpoints but his goal was raw power and personal ego-gratification.
Currently, we can witness abuse of authority in the American crusade in Iraq. At first, it was a war against terrorism; that didn't pan out, so it became a war against WMD, presumably to take out Israel's primary enemy (Israel had bombed Iraqi WMD programs before). Finally, with all else failing, it became a war for Democracy and Freedom, both of which mean nothing when they come at the expense of your native culture being replaced by cultureless Product-ism and American-style infestation of malls, fast food, etc. Iraq is at this point as neurotic as America is, since the Americans have effectively divided it against itself. Where one ethnic group ruled, now each group pulls in its own direction, dooming the country to endless civil war. Women are now polarized against men, the poor against the rich, the rural against the urban. Iraq is destroyed much as the Branch Dravidians were, and for what? Well, it's convenient that, as in Vietnam, American industry can take over and cultivate both new sources of cheap labor and new markets for mediocre products (Coca-Cola, General Motors, Microsoft). The reason for this war is less obvious, but lies within the revenge impulse of George Bush himself: he wanted to best his father, and finally beat back those who defied not only American-Israeli hegemony in the middle east, but also the American way of life and "official" religion, evangelical Christianity. Oil, democracy, WMDs, terrorism, religion are the justifications - the real reason is pure abuse of power, based in the personality of our leader much in the same way it was with Clinton. Maybe being popular forces politicians to internalize so much of their own personalities that when those elements come out, they are by nature violent and revengeful?
Authority becomes abusive when it falls into the power vacuum created by a lack of official consensus, but a powerful majority who will identify with its Us Versus Them rhetoric. Iraqis and Branch Dravidians = bad; Freedom and Democracy and Civil Rights legislation = good. The abuse of authority is enabled by a population that cannot agree on basic values and is willing to be manipulated by such demagoguery, in part from the belief that greater force will compel others to join the "right" and not "wrong" side. It is not a property of authority itself, but of authority placed into an impossible decision and the error compounded by leaders choosing to avoid the actual problem - disunity - and to emphasize force instead. The Iraq problem lies in an ancient division between Jews and Muslims, exacerbated by Christian Crusades, and cannot be solved by force alone. The Branch Dravidian problem arose because America, as a culture and shared set of values, has always been a melting pot and thus has no common ground except basic law and order and money, of course. In each of these situations, misuse of authority has simply hastened the inevitable collapse. The Iraq war came on top of announcements by al-Qaeda that America and Israel would attack Muslim lands, and immediately made prophets of al-Qaeda. The attack on the Branch Dravidians spawned greater divisions in American society and more radicalized dissidents. The only solution that misusers of authority see is greater authority, which they'll tighten until they force revolution or other extreme social breakdown. Entropy is our future.
Didn't this column promise to be about cops? Now that we have some understanding of the underlying problems of authority, it is easier to understand why cops are so divisive. There are two major attitudes in America, at least, toward law enforcement. The first are those who out of pure meekness and submission or practical not rocking the boat choose to support law enforcement radically; they tend to fear the lawless, the coming anarchy, and the hordes of impoverished, drug addicted, violent felons that America produces. The other group believes that cops are inherently authority abusers, and paints them all with the same wide brush as consummate bullies and oppressors. The reality of course is that cops must represent a system of law that is, as in the case of profit derived from speeding tickets, abusive by design, and, because of the paradox under which they labor or other personal factors, that some cops are authority abusers. The counterculture would like us to believe that only authority abusers join the police force, but this does not address the fact that some form of authority is needed. The other side is blind to the failings of the design of our authority and the situations in which it places cops that make authority abuse easy. Authority is only as good as its design and underlying that, the will of the citizens to come together and agree on values systems.
There are plenty of good cops out there. Hardworking, they see their job in a transcendent light, which is that it's their chance for heroism on a daily basis. They look forward to placing themselves in harm's way so that they can do an act of good, usually saving the rest of us from some deviant. It was cops such as these who spoke up against the Branch Dravidian invasion and the war on drugs and other misguided, abusive ideas, and it's their counterparts in the military - who view their own roles with the same kind of respect and hope - who are currently voicing the rumblings of dissent with the Iraq war. Much as many of our citizens are either passive bullies or active forces of subjugation of others, some cops are simply screwed up people. Many are not. What makes people fear cops is the system of values behind their authority, which in its absolute and universal application of laws that do not take into account the differences between people, creates an oppressive atmosphere in which both sanctioned and unsanctioned abuse have free reign.
December 9, 2005