The Moral Use of Power
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — Frederick Douglass
There are two levels of conservatism. Perhaps there more, but there are two I want to talk about. Both have their roots in the same soil.
One is the social level that’s the fear of open homosexuals and transgendered people. That’s the opposition to immigration, affirmative action and “Press 2 for Spanish.” Gender-neutral bathrooms? Seriously? There’s some racism and bigotry stirred into all of that because racists and bigots of the past invented the system that needs changing. It’s change that frightens conservatives, but it’s also equality.
… racists and bigots of the past invented the system that needs changing
Fear of equality is a tie that binds all political conservatives and I want to focus on that.
I’m not just conservative bashing here. Everybody has a streak of this. We all have ideas about who should and who should not have power. Even liberals — and obviously I am one — believe there are special people, kissed by the gods, who are pre-ordained to benefit from the special good things in life including power. We can’t escape it. It’s in the water that we swim through every day.
The reason liberals can be distinguished from conservatives is that liberals think it’s okay for a lot of the “wrong” people to have power. In fact, it’s vital to everyone’s well being. We are the ones who fought the monarchy and helped spread democracy. We are the ones who want to preserve democracy and allow people to have some power over their own lives. Liberals want to free the slaves, get votes for women, even votes for people who have been to prison. Liberals killed Jim Crow and fought to allow gay people to marry. Liberals think everyone should have health care, regardless of ability to pay.
The reason conservatives believe that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to outlaw hamburgers is because they don’t really believe in democracy. Of course, they are using the hamburger thing just to scare their base, but the reason their base isn’t laughing at them is because imperial decree is how they would do it. They would outlaw hamburgers and use force to compel compliance. They believe if she — or any wrong person — has power conservatives will suffer for it.
Downton Abby, anyone?
I’ve talked a lot about how western culture has always been in love with aristocracy and feudalism. Lots of fairy tales, lots of fantasy stories lots of movies all depend on the tropes of the special person who is not like everyone else. We are surrounded by stories of a hero (usually male) who fights to make everything alright. The good king takes power and deposes the bad king. It’s what liberals are hoping for from the 2020 election.
For conservatives, this is how the world should be. But, again, it’s not just them, we liberals harbor a secret wish for a savior and a good king. What makes liberals different from conservatives, is liberals don’t think that’s right. We think monarchy is immoral. You shouldn’t be able to rule over others just because of your last name or bank balance.
Stay out of sight
In the past (and even now) there are people who are “supposed” to hide in the shadows, out of sight. Old mansions have stairways and passageways that allow servants to move around the house unseen.
There are also socially constructed passageways for the wrong people in the modern world. People are supposed to live in their right neighborhoods and be unseen elsewhere. When they appear in restaurants, public pools, and parks, they are the wrong people to be there.
People are supposed to live in their right neighborhoods and be unseen elsewhere.
A handful of people have made themselves famous on Youtube and Twitter by trying to right that wrong. They call 911 to report that a black family is barbecuing in the park. The barbecue grill is intended for public use but not by the wrong people. A teenager invites all her friends for a swim party at her apartment complex and someone calls the police because too many of her friends are the wrong color and are therefore in the wrong place.
And, of course, we get upset when the wrong people have power.
Remember the reaction to the Obama presidency? He was the wrong color. Entirely the wrong kind of person to have power. Fox news and its ecosystem went insane. “What if he treats us the way we treat them?” I literally saw that in a comment section online. Obviously, it was written by an amazingly self-aware Fox news viewer.
An elitist, racist society erected those unconscious ideas — the idea of who should and should not have power.
Another example of this is the “me too” movement.
If you watch old movies you will see a lot of casual sexual harassment. In its mildest form, it’s good-natured humor. It’s a kind of flirting. If you don’t like it or don’t respond in kind you’re a sour puss. At best you’re not a good sport at worst you’re a bitch. Not a team player. Someone who doesn’t know how to get along with people.
If a woman responds the “wrong” way in the workplace it can be a career ender. If the situation skates beyond humorous flirting and gets into more rapey territory, the woman is supposed to handle the situation with grace and good humor, not blow a whistle and not complain to higher-ups. Doing something like that can get you fired or sidelined. That’s why it can take 20 years for an incident to become public. A woman of 25 is just starting out in life. A woman of 45 often has a lot more power. She has some leeway to speak up — sometimes. Sometimes, as in the case of Christine Blasey Ford, she doesn’t quite have the power she thought she did.
Still, the women of the “me too” movement aren’t supposed to have the power to bring down a wealthy powerful man. That’s entirely the wrong people to have power. My god, what if someone falsely reported harassment just to ruin someone’s career? If a woman’s career is ruined that’s sad. If a man’s career is ruined it’s a catastrophe. Women having the power to do that is just wrong.
There are now a lot of articles out there about how the “me too” movement has gone too far. We are told that men should get the benefit of the doubt. We are told that rape and sexual harassment are not the same thing. That’s true. But if a woman isn’t a good sport, if she doesn’t know how to smile and get along, there is no benefit of the doubt for her. The truth is she has no power and has no right to any power over men.
Power in the wrong hands
And now I’m going to shift gears. Democracy is an object lesson about power in the wrong hands. Until the American Revolution, power was in the hands of a rich aristocratic class. That’s how it had “always” been. “Always” Is in quotes because a few small, short-lived democracies had broken out before that. In1783 Aristocrats were worried, but not very. By the middle of the 19th century, democracy had spread across Europe and many other places.
More and more power was pouring into the wrong hands. The wrong hands are people who aren’t rich. People who aren’t the “betters.” People who didn’t know how to wield power, and don’t have a right to it.
As a culture, we have always admired the aristocrats. We don’t call them dukes, earls, and barons any more (except for one kid named Baron Trump.) But we definitely admire them. There are entire YouTube channels devoted to studying the lives of wealthy, powerful, mostly men. “Steve Jobs’s Top 10 Rules For Success!” “Life Advice from Elon Musk!” “How does Warren Buffett spend his day?” Even the creepy boyfriend in “50 Shades of Gray” was redeemable because he was a billionaire. Wow! Paul Manafort had an ostrich skin jacket!
There are entire YouTube channels devoted to studying the lives of wealthy, powerful, mostly men.
We admire them. We enable them. We want to be them. And we unconsciously think of them as the golden ones, the ones chosen by the gods to rightfully wield power. Someone who wears clothes from the sale rack at Walmart doesn’t know how to wield power. It’s just wrong for them to have power. Nobody cares what they want or think about anything. They don’t count.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been in office barely more than two months Fox news had more than 1400 articles about her on their website. All negative, of course. She is absolutely the wrong person to have power. She’s brown, she’s a woman and she’s poor. Well, actually she now has a job where she earns just under $200 grand a year. But that’s poor by congressional standards. Their median net worth is just over $1 million dollars.
AOC is a terrifying prospect for a conservative. She’s not one of the special ones. She’s not sophisticated. She’s not elegant. She’s not queenly. There are no fabulous photos of her dripping with diamonds.
Democracy is unkind to the aristocracy. It’s an anathema. It means their money, their blue blood, and their natural and inherited privilege don’t count for anything. That’s why conservatives who struggle to preserve privilege are suspicious of democracy at the best of times and hostile to it the rest of the time. Democracy brought us AOC and Obama. It almost brought us Hillary, though she is of the correct class. Bernie isn’t. He’s obviously not of the right class. He barely has two million dollars to rub together. Good grief he only owns two residences! I believe in my heart that’s why Hillary Clinton was the Democratic candidate in 2016. She was the right sort to wield power and Bernie Sanders was not.
The word “privilege” means “private law.” Clearly, there are different sets of laws for various social classes. One set for the rich and privileged and one for everyone else. One set of laws for white people and one set for people of color.
People were mad when Paul Manafort got only 7 years for his life of crime, theft, and fraud while some poor person can get a life sentence for an ounce of crack cocaine. They wanted Manafort to get a billion gazillion years for what he’d done.
No. No, not like that. The drug war is a war on the poor. We need to fix privilege the other way and stop demonizing and immiserating the non-blue bloods. There is a certain urge to get even, but I want to get even the other way.
… the wealthy in America are just as much aristocrats as The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester
I want to stop demonizing the poor. I want to stop being tough on their crimes but not others. I want to treat non-aristocrats — and, trust me, the wealthy in America are just as much aristocrats as The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester — with the same privilege and law as Bill Gates and Ivanka Trump. I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Equality under the law.
I’d love for that to be a thing. Not to send aristocrats to the guillotine, but to treat the petty burglar with thoughtful consideration and compassion. Perhaps send them to a treatment program rather than prison. Radical, I know.
Inequality and privilege are natural and normal.
Treating every person, even the person wearing the clothing from the Walmart clearance rack, as if they were an aristocrat, will make the conservative streak in all of us frightened and crazy. It will make the right wing want to revolt. Inequality and privilege are natural and normal. They are the way things are supposed to be. Lock her up!
I and many others have talked about how privilege is invisible to those who have it. It’s the water we swim in. Fish don’t know what water tastes like. Doesn’t extending privilege to everyone mean less for me? I might have to play by the same rules we have for those others and that would be a catastrophe.
They might treat me like I’ve treated them and I don’t want to risk that!
But, you know, I think someone has actually thought about that before and there’s a rule that covers it.
Yeah, I think it goes “do unto others ….”