As we were firing explosives into the air on Monday, celebrating a small band of rebels that revolted against their leader during a time of war, I thought about the subject of authority. One of the major differences between conservative and liberal thought is the respect and deference to voices of authority. The quote "My President, Right or Wrong" is a great example. As respectful and appropriate as it sounds to many right-wingers, it sounds dangerous and anti-America to many on the left.
This distinction appears to have been repeated over the past 150 years. In the 1860's, Southern Democrats felt free to create their own country because of major splits in attitudes and values, while Republicans were adamant that the President is the ruler of the nation whether you agreed with him or not. In the 1960's, it was Democratic leaders that were willing to undermine the authority of local governors and mayors to enforce desegregation and remove institutional racism, while the Republicans were deferential to those in charge. Likewise, it was left-leaning hippies who protested against the Vietnam War, while the more conservative element supported the administration's moves, even when the administration was Democratic. Perhaps these attitudes stem from the religious bases of the two sides, as I discussed in April in "Pietistic Republicanism". The Republican-leaning pietistic religions rely on strong leaders and rhetoric, while the Democrat-leaning liturgical religions rely on personal interpretation of written law.
Of course, none of this explains where the "My President, Right or Wrong" bumper stickers on SUVs were when Clinton was president and right-wingers were calling him everything from "Slick Willy" to "Bubba" to "Billery". But that's an analysis for another day. Personally, I don't believe that the righties' hypocrisy on the issue of authority means they don't believe in it. For some reason, it didn't seem to apply to #42, but it continues to be a major rift in inter-party dialogue. Democrats usually live by the mantra, "Question Authority", while Republicans prefer "Respect Authority". Is it any wonder why Republicans are the ones talking lovingly about their fathers bringing out the belt while the Democrats are the ones who would rather use "time-outs" and other alternate discipline?
With the debut of the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the late Roald Dahl has gotten a lot of press recently. Before you start wondering what on earth this has to do with Southern Democrats and the Vietnam War, were you aware that Dahl's books, including Charlie, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, are regularly targets of book banning in libraries and schools? Despite the absence of violence (except for the comic sort) and sex, many parents find these books to be highly objectionable. Why? They encourage children to question the authority of their parents. In Dahl's books, children are the heroes. Parents never are. However, Dahl's villains aren't exclusively parents, in the tired old "us vs them" genre. His villains are just as likely to be random adults, aunts, uncles, or even other children. In fact, a common theme in Dahl's books revolves around parents who have died or who are too beset by circumstances to be effective. Nevertheless, according to an article in the New Yorker, one parent looking to ban Dahl from elementary schools in Virginia said, "children misbehave and take retribution on adults, and there's never, ever a consequence for their actions." To many people, children talking back (or worse!) to adults is the worst possible offense. Children are bullying each other? Kids will be kids. Children are disrespectful to a grownup? Now we have a problem.
I'm not saying kids shouldn't respect adults. Everyone deserves respect, even adults. But the era of Father Knows Best is gone, if it ever really existed. Deferring to people simply because they're older than you or because they hold leadership positions in business or government isn't always the right way. Again, I'm not saying kids shouldn't be deferring to adults, just not for the simple reason that they're younger. They should defer to people who know more, who are actively working to help them, who are working to educate them. And always respect, the way any human should respect another. But the instant true authority disappears, so should nominal authority.
Many Republicans claim they lost any and all respect for Bill Clinton when his numerous affairs were revealed. Democrats argued that his personal conduct, while troublesome, had nothing to do with his military and economic and social policies. While incredibly misguided, I can understand when people make the decision to see the person instead of the office. That's why it confounds me when conservatives don't have the decency to respect the people who have taken a look at the multiple breaches of trust Bush has committed and have decided for themselves to separate the office from the man. What opponents of Dahl's books, like many conservatives, don't understand, is that the children in his stories aren't rebellious, they're independent. They evaluate actions based on the action, and not on the person performing it. This is what independent thinking is. It's not a rebellion against everything authority stands for. Dislike of Bush doesn't mean an instant repudiation against every one of his policies. Despite the high-profile battles between red and blue in Washington, a lot of lower-profile bills get passed with bipartisan approval. Otherwise intelligent Republicans will defend to the death the appropriateness of John Bolton as UN Ambassador or insist that the rationale from the start for the war in Iraq was the freedom of the Iraqi people. In response, Democrats have been "unifying", a word that means that despite their otherwise intelligence, they'll support partial-birth abortions and Palestinian terrorists. Somehow politics have become a winner-take-all game, and politicians are too scared to lose to actually govern. But instead of blindly obeying authority, instead of following Bush and Frist over the cliff, why can't we learn to question the rules? Why can't we follow our own consciencences and make our own decisions? The King is dead. Long live the King.