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How Can They Not See It?

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“How can they not see it?” That’s a question I heard many ask after last year’s election. How could half of America not see the lying, the bullying, the arrogance, the ruthlessness?

I’ve wondered in particular how it is that a disproportionate number of the most remarkably decent people I know voted to re-elect a president whose administration has been remarkable precisely for its lack of such decency.

One fellow I know where I used to live, for example, is so reliably fair and honest that he’s the one I entrusted to handle some important business for me in my absence. I know I can rely on him. He’s as good a specimen of “the upright man” as I’ve met.

He was brought up in a strict home with similarly upright parents, church-going folks with a successful small business. From an early age he committed himself to the straight-and-narrow path of right conduct, aligning himself with his parents’ strict teachings and then shaping himself to fit well into other traditional molders of righteousness. Through his activities with church groups and civic associations, he’s given back to the community. He’s a faithful husband and devoted father. Pretty tightly wound, he runs his business with impeccable integrity.

He himself would never lie or bully or cheat to get ahead. He’d never act with overweening arrogance. So why does my friend vote for someone who so manifestly lacks the virtues central to his own identity?

The answer, I believe, has two parts. One is that the way he got molded gave him some moral blind spots.

All his life he’s respected and given his unquestioning allegiance to a certain set of authorities. His decent parents made him a decent man, but not in a way that equipped him to spot indecency in an authority who displays the right badges of righteousness.

A patriotic American, my friend cannot see through the manipulations of a leader who wraps himself in the flag. And if that leader is adept at using certain kinds of archetypal symbols of morality –by conspicuously opposing any looseness in sexual morality, for example—my friend will fail to notice if that leader is amoral in the way he wields his power. Brought up to admire the ethical small-scale business world of his father, he does not discern how different is the ethic of large-scale corporate powers that would sacrifice the future of the planet for their own short-term enrichment.

My friend’s habit of attributing rectitude to cultural forms that look like those that taught him to be righteous and responsible has made him prey to a certain kind of seduction.

But the other part of the answer is that there’s a part of him that wants to be seduced. If you drive nature out with a pitchfork, said the Roman satirist Horace, she’ll find a way back. And so it can be with an upbringing straight-and-narrow enough to produce the most remarkably straight of straight arrows.

So fully and early did my friend give himself over to rectitude, I suspect, that he’s never really had a chance to become acquainted with his own darker side. Some of his feelings and needs were of no interest to his strict parents, except to make sure they were suppressed. And the cost of such suppression is to make a person’s dark impulses darker still with the energies of anger.

Righteousness, I’d wager, is not all that my friend contains. There’s also what’s become of those forbidden, long-imprisoned impulses whose suppression the straight-and-narrow path required: perhaps someone glad to be able – vicariously—to act the part of the ruthless and arrogant bully; perhaps someone grateful for a chance to exact—covertly-- revenge for being confined in so tight a cage.

And so, like all seductions, President Bush’s seduction of good and decent people like my friend fulfills also a need in the seduced. The French political philosopher Denis de Rougement has said about patriotism, “What nobody would dare say of his me, he has the sacred duty of saying for his us.” Not just duty, but gratification.

Thus a president who struts the world and flaunts his power, who disregards the established rules and never admits error, who creates enemies and antagonizes friends –all in the name of the nation and its sacred ideals—offers his followers a legitimized collective way to enact the forbidden.

This is what draws people who are perfectly upright in their own lives to embrace a leader who, under the cloak of a false righteousness, manifests qualities they would never allow themselves to express individually.

How can they not see? In part, they’ve been blinded. In part, it meets their needs to close their eyes.

 

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 
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