I am tired of Barack Obama asking me if I’m in. I’m tired of Michelle Obama asking me if I’m in. I don’t want to be in.
First of all, when did voting for president become comparable to a poker game? That’s the only circumstance I can think of for the phrase, “Are you in?” It doesn’t apply to swimming, or shopping, or even travelling. It means, “Are you ready to put up some money to play?” It’s nice the Obamas ask you to donate money right after they ask if you’re in.
As I think about it, the phrase asks, directly or indirectly, “Do you want to give me money?” This from a campaign that does not have any good ideas about how to remove us from the crisis we are in. As our foot hovers over the quicksand of revolutionary violence, our leader and his wife ask with smiling internet faces, “Are you in?” Click the Donate icon now to show us you care, because we care about you. Join with others who are happy and don’t know why.
I keep saying in these articles that we don’t have much time. Our time of turmoil has already begun, but big changes usually take generations to play out. Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror, writes about the Hundred Years War. It actually did last a century. Rome’s empire underwent construction for longer than a day – for many generations, in fact. Neither did it fall in a day, as Gibbon reminds us. Similarly, our great civilization will not fall in one generation, but it will end eventually. Nothing is permanent. We as citizens have to manage this transition the best we can.
So we have to ask, how should we deal with a state that has become sclerotic, self-serving, and corrupt? Think of Jabba the Hutt, who ran a criminal empire through his toadies and assassins, who entertained himself with slave girls and ate anything in sight. When Luke Skywalker returns from his training with Yoda, he confronts the gangster with cool confidence and insight: “This is your last chance, Jabba.” The gangster laughs and sends him through a trap door to fight his pet monster. Not long afterward, Leia strangles him.
The insight we need is that this government is vulnerable. Its parts don’t trust each other. Its parts don’t communicate well with each other, partly because they don’t want to. They don’t want to partly because they don’t trust each other. Its parts engage in conflicts and self-protective activities that weaken the whole. The government – including the parts intended to strong-arm people – is not as strong as it appears to be. Like so many corrupt, vain leaders, it has no moral core, and its weakness becomes apparent only after it disintegrates.
The problem with so many theories of revolutionary change – theories from communist movements in particular – is you must use force to achieve your goals. Look at the long-term success of communist movements and ask yourself if they got it right. The movements failed, either before or after they acquired power. Reasons for failure vary. The key reason movements that use force fail is that they do not have legitimacy. When you acquire power by force, you wield it illegitimately.
Machiavelli wrote at length about how criminals like Stalin dressed up as rulers use power. In Italian politics at the time, you could not turn your back for a minute. Think of how the Corleones in The Godfather lived. Remember the security at the wedding in the opening scene? Machiavelli stated the first law of Italian politics in The Prince: In a world where people are cruel and untrustworthy, you likewise must use cruelty and force to achieve your object. If your object is to hold power until someone stronger and more ruthless knocks you off, it’s not bad advice. If your object is to wield legitimate power, to lead because others want to follow you, Machiavelli’s recommendations about use of cruelty and force could not be worse.
At the moment, our government and its leaders do not understand this point about Machiavelli. They do not grasp that their government is illegitimate, nor do they grasp that people perceive it that way. Not everyone perceives it as illegitimate, but enough do. Others are going to. The government’s pattern of behavior will force them to see it. That’s what happened to me. When it tortured people in the open – not once but all over the world – then defended the practice as legitimate, I asked, “What else is this government doing, in secret?” The answers to that question reveal a state more immoral and self-serving than you might imagine.
We have to prepare for the day when more people see that our government works for itself, not for us. That’s the definition of corruption: taking people’s money and using it to enrich yourself, pretending to serve other people when you actually serve yourself. That’s what people in China mean when they say communist party officials are corrupt. That’s what we mean when we say our government is corrupt.
So many people do understand how corrupt our government has become, but in general our country seems resigned to it. Certain groups, like the Tea Party and Occupy movements, display a sense of urgency about the problem, but given the reception these groups have witnessed, we might conclude that others don’t see what they see. Or we might conclude they see corruption, but don’t feel they can do much about it. That sense of resignation won’t last.
Yesterday on the radio I heard a gentleman named Thomas Cleary speak about Chinese history. Through millennia the cycle has been the same: complacency and corruption follow a period of stability and order. During periods of order, public officials try to honor Confucian principles of virtue and service. Corruption makes the rulers’ authority illegitimate, until stresses from within the kingdom and without bring a period of anarchy, confusion and suffering. At last a new ruler, often a military one, establishes a new dynasty, and the cycle begins again. Cleary noted that this cycle marks almost all societies.
We are a relatively new society, with less history than the Chinese. If Cleary is right, corruption is well advanced in our cycle. We see signs of weakness due to corruption, signs of resistance to authority, confusion about the future, and of course suffering. If you doubt the last point about suffering, think of the millions of unemployed men and women who sit at home today waiting for a phone call that will never come. Think of families who have lost their homes. Think of thousands of servicemen who come home from war to families who don’t know how to receive them or care for them, who after they escape death in battle crave it at home.
So our president asks me if I’m in. No, I’m not in. I’m an active opponent because you and the state you represent don’t deserve my loyalty. You and all the power you have gathered into the executive branch are going to fail. That is, the government you represent won’t persist in its current state. Don’t ask me for my money anymore. Meantime, citizens, let’s think about how we can hasten this period of transition to reestablish legitimate authority. We have better communications now than the Romans did. The pace of societal evolution has picked up.