Political Flu Season: “Do-Something Syndrome” and “Autocrat Aesthetic Disorder”

When a person even of Michele Bachmann’s moral caliber endorses systematic invasions of privacy, we must acknowledge that political power is very unwholesome.

I was among the many who were deeply distressed by Michele Bachmann’s decision this past week not to support the House conservatives’ bid (aided by a few old-school liberals) to cut the NSA’s funding.  My first formal exposure to the bad news was on a site that carried several reader responses.  These were of two sorts: those who believed that Bachmann must surely have seen facets of the issue not available to us mere citizen-taxpayers, and those who cynically declared that one more person of conscience had asphyxiated in Washington’s morally toxic fog.  The latter outnumbered the former by at least three or four to one. 

Personally, I wouldn’t draw either conclusion.  The cynics make no sense to me whatever.  They sneer that because Bachmann has announced her decision not to run again, she is free to subvert the republic.  But it is precisely because her hat no longer sits in the electoral ring that she has no motive to cut unsavory deals with creepy big-government types whose operations she has opposed as courageously as anyone in Congress.

Neither do I believe, though, that Michele is privy to more information than her Texas colleague Louie Gohmert, who outspokenly decries NSA’s invasions of our privacy.  She seems, in ways, shockingly uninformed.  On Glenn Beck’s morning radio program of Monday, July 29, Bachmann appeared so ignorant of the situation’s political realities (as opposed to its legal and strategic dimensions) that she resorted to running out the clock on her interviewer—explaining to him, for instance, why the government’s megalithic data collection center is in Utah when asked who runs it and what data it stores.  As a voter who supported Bachmann for president before every other contender, I was mortified.  

I suspect that Bachmann has been infected by “Do-Something Syndrome”.  The idea that we will be better off if we just leave things alone is incomprehensible to the kind of person whose life’s work always involves “fixing things”.  To do nothing is not an option that this person can entertain, apparently, without falling to pieces.  How many doctors can restrain themselves from prescribing a treatment in spite of their having taken Hippocrates’s pledge first to do no harm?  How many lawyers in government can settle for mere repeal of a bad law instead of correcting it with a new, “better” law?  How many journalists can resist bestowing major causative powers upon current events, despite much evidence that human nature keeps history revolving around the old same axis?  A person whose work is newscasting believes that every latest occurrence could change lives.  A person whose work is lawmaking believes that we will be happier if more or better strictures are laid upon our collective activity.  Professional pundits with a special interest in national defense tend to believe that more tanks and intel always create more security.  I might mention figures like Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham in this context, for whose labors I have the utmost admiration.  I might indeed dare to follow the observation that these two and Bachmann are women with the suggestion that women—even conservative ones—seem more apt to line up behind Big Brother when terrorism is afoot.

On another day, too, I might carry this discussion farther in the specific direction of national defense, an issue that is undoubtedly riving big-government resistance down the middle.  I can’t think of another subject that makes adversaries of close allies so suddenly.  People who agree about the right of parents to control their children’s curriculum and the right workers not to be bullied into joining unions abruptly take opposite views about whether our drones should be zapping marketplaces in the Hindu Kush.  In passing, I would suggest that if we ought to secure our borders before addressing the status of illegal aliens (and any other position is folly), then we ought to do exactly the same thing before addressing the issue of how many parched, adolescent terrorists we must chase through how many deserts and mountain ranges around the world.  If our borders were secure, Michele and Michelle and Laura, we wouldn’t need to keep track of who was phoning Kabul.  Love you lots: please come home.  

The issue compelling me to write today, however, is a very, very basic one underlying all the others above.  What is the federal government’s reason for being?  Does it, even theoretically, have the constitutional power to oversee and overhear everything we do?  What exactly do we expect out of this government, we who honor the Constitution?  

We know what others expect who are not of our brotherhood.  Lindsey Graham dismissed the Tea Party three years ago in these terms: “The problem with the Tea Party, I think it’s just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out.” (1)  Graham envisions a great choreographer prescribing moves to every last “extra” who occupies the stage.  The country needs governing: her people need directing.  Chris Christie has almost the same reservations about libertarianism.  Recently he characterized Rand Paul as “very dangerous” for questioning the Bush/Obama high-tech-invasion-of-privacy approach to security. (2)  Allowing people to decide when to open and shut their own doors and windows is risky business.  All of us need to turn to the same page of the script—Big Brother’s script, Christie’s script.

Both of these influential figures appear to be guided by motives that might well be called aesthetic.  They have a mental picture of the collective, a political dream.  Graham actually uses the word “vision”.  In their heads is a version of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on the hill”.  Graham’s vision, one supposes, has very different architecture from Reagan’s; yet the Graham remark above does not advance any particular vision—it only chides the Tea Party for having none.  Similarly, if less overtly, Governor Christie promotes order as self-justifying.  A blunt utilitarian through and through, he doesn’t clutter his speech with hazy metaphors.  A top-down, intrusive surveillance program employed against terrorism is proper because “it works”.  Yet even the mechanist is an aesthete of sorts.  He thinks things are beautiful because they function well.  The assembled guts of a clock are beautiful if they keep time.

I disagree with anyone who believes that the United States Constitution is a blueprint for some elegant Taj Mahal.  Even if this opposes me to Reagan’s seductive rhetoric, I stand my ground.  Our political union is not intended to be, and must not become, a lovely sculpture or a well-oiled machine.  In a free society, individuals may make choices about how to impose a “sense of things” upon life’s fearful confusion: governments may not.  The central government’s constitutional obligation is to keep the nation materially secure so that its citizens may believe in God or not, marry or not, donate to charity or not, as they individually prefer.  A government that severely limits, or potentially limits, such minute decisions on the pretext of making the collective safer has betrayed its vows in the process of fulfilling them: it has undercut our ability to make those choices for which we wanted freedom, to begin with.  I do not even like the idea of a Bush techie red-flagging a Muslim who calls home and tells Grandad that Hollywood should be blown off the map; I certainly don’t like the idea of an Obama hack starting a dossier on me if I accuse El Supremo of high treason in an email message.

Beck was quite right to insist to Bachmann that the apparent non-existence of NSA abuses at this point is not the issue: the issue is a greatly enhanced possibility of abuses in the future.  If Rhode Island were to decriminalize murder tomorrow and, a week later, we were to find that no new murders had been committed, it wouldn’t mean that decriminalization was a good idea.

To return to aesthetics: individual human beings are not tubes of paint or building blocks.  Our lives are not colors on some politician’s palette.  We do not need to be marshaled about by someone with a vision for governing, Senator Graham, because our existence will thereby be given purpose.  We do not need to be placed in time-out for uttering naughty words on the playground, Governor Christie, because the “school day” of our lives will thereby have sharper discipline.  We are not your children: you are not our “authors”.

Such attacks of “autocrat aesthetics”, from which these two gentlemen suffer severely, are indeed as connected to Do-Something Syndrome as pneumonia is to a bad cold.  The former tends to develop from an untreated case of the latter.  As I have said, a doctor, a lawyer, a news hound, or a pundit approaches the near-chaos of modern living with a technique for imposing order dictated largely by his or her expertise.  In cases threatening to the health of the soul, the professional’s existential purpose—what we call personal identity—becomes deeply invested in micromanaging other people’s lives in a way that shows off these expert abilities as brilliantly as possible.  Give a man a hammer, says the proverb, and everything looks like a nail.  Give the professional real authority over others, and he or she may start doing more than just something—may do so much that you must go stand here and act like a tree while I must go there and act like a boulder.  We become mere objects in this creative genius’s landscape painting.

Up until about three centuries ago in the Western world, the impulse to “aestheticize” society into a canvas for one’s professional use was held in check by religious faith.  People believed, that is, that even kings and potentates were but pawns on God’s chessboard.  No person of faith took himself entirely seriously.  Everyone knew that the Iliad, the Sistine Chapel, the Parthenon—all would turn to dust, sooner or later, and that the only durable reality in God’s eyes would be the truth about individual human souls.  You can find this much in the “Dream of Scipio” section of Cicero’s Republic.

In centuries gone by, I think even the persistence of the arts held Do-Something Syndrome and Autocrat Aesthetic Disorder in check to some degree.  Politicos might play a violin or mess about scribbling poems during their “down time”.  Now they have no bow or quill or other medium with which to recreate themselves, except for… us, and our personal affairs.  If they can only make us behave, they will have produced a thing of beauty.

I don’t suppose there is much hope for the souls of Graham, Christie, and other AAD-sufferers of the RINO brand.  People have been putty in their fat fingers for too many years.  The rest of us would do well to resist the very notion behind the “RINO” label and recognize, instead, that these men have not somehow defected from the Republican Party.  That party’s name is no inoculation against AAD, or even DSS.  Everyone upon whom is bestowed political power acquires a major risk factor for the initial infection (e.g., the late great Marco Rubio).  Ronald Reagan understood the importance of “having a life” apart from the presidency, as did our first presidents.  The office, and other such high offices, must not become a 24/7 drama with the world’s fate hanging upon the Superior Person’s decisions by the minute.  Neither governor nor senator nor president nor any other officer of the republic was originally intended to hold solutions for everything that goes awry in our lives. 

That so many of our fellow citizens now demand such intrusive tinkering out of their officials says something about the electorate’s state of health.  Normal, self-respecting adults never used to view being ordered about a chessboard by some terrestrial narcissist on a throne as a productive existence.  We once called that servitude from citizen’s angle, and tyranny from the ruler’s.

I’m glad that you are withdrawing into private life again, Michele.  I hope your retirement may not be permanent, and that your former health is quickly restored.  May I suggest that you take up music? 

Notes

(1)  Stephanie Condon, “Lindsey Graham: Tea Party Will ‘Die Out’.”  CBS News.com.  1 July, 2010.  Web. 

(2)  Jeff Crouere, “Freedom is not Dangerous, Governor Christie.”  Townhall.com.  27 July, 2013.  Web.

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