Collapse of authority when authority deserves contempt



Don’t think it can’t happen here. Rather, don’t think it can’t happen twice. I’m not thinking about a second civil war, though estrangement has become so pervasive in a country subjected to the feds’ shock treatment that civil conflict has become both a norm and a preoccupation. The ‘it’ I’m thinking about refers to a total loss of respect for public authorities, such as occurred when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. When that happened, rulers lost their moral authority, and citizens lost their fear. It appeared to happen suddenly, but the fall was a long time coming.

At the end of The Lives of Others, Georg Dreyman addresses a former East German official, a piggish kingpin who forces Dreyman’s lover to become the kingpin’s mistress and, through his subordinates, an informant for the state. Dreyman says, with contempt, “And to think that people like you once ruled a country.” Everyone was in thrall to a state that seemed so powerful, right up until it collapsed.

Our state also has forfeited its moral authority. It may not have descended to the East German state’s level of moral corruption, but it has come a long way. It does not treat its citizens with respect; thus it deserves no respect in return. We obey out of habit and out of fear, but someday hope and contempt for people who betrayed themselves and everyone else will cause these overweight institutions to fail. We don’t know how long it will take, but it will happen.

I had a discussion with a friend about political motivations a couple of days ago. By way of comparison, she raised Kennedy’s example, as a politician who kept his ideals in mind, even as he engaged in the kind of work politicians have to do. He serves as a good contrast to self-serving motives, as a leader who served larger national ideals and interests. Remarkable now is that politicians don’t even pretend to serve anyone but themselves. Another harbinger of Hunger Games‘ Capitol.

Two follow-up remarks about Kennedy. The first comes from the biography of Augustus: I happen to be reading about him now in Gibbon. Key to Augustus’ authority and longevity in office was that he had solid loyalty of the military throughout his rule. His own strength depended on military strength. Kennedy lost the military’s backing – I include the CIA as a covert branch of the military – and we saw what happened. The national security state turned on him after the Bay of Pigs. The state would not have executed him if he had soft pedaled his views and intentions about peace and war, but he did not. He made a point of not using military force during the Cuban missile crisis.

That argument comes from James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable. I refer to Douglass so often because he deserves a close reading.

The second follow-up point is personal. Kennedy did not have to be nasty, or look after a politician’s dirty work, because he had his brother. Bobby Kennedy was Jack Kennedy’s consigliere: if something unsavory or difficult had to be done, Bobby took care of it. He was the president’s fixer. People knew they were an effective team.

Bobby said shortly after the assassination, “I thought something like this would happen, but I thought it would be me.” That was a recognition that he was the one to make enemies. Key members of the national security state recognized how much both brothers threatened their own power, and convinced themselves the Kennedys could not be trusted with the state’s security. So they went after the top guy.