On Defiance – Against Authoritarianism


My Bronze Rule (a.k.a. Reciprocal Altruism):

 Do unto others as you would have them do unto you –
unless they return you dirt. Then, give ‘em a smack they won’t soon forget.


When I was negotiating my tumultuous separation from the company for which I’d worked for 23 years, I received a letter from the company’s president which contained a severance offer. The letter also contained an aside which I assumed was intended to influence my reaction: “Mac, you always did have a problem with authority.” Gag me with a gravy ladle! This was outrageous because he knew that my problem was with the General Operations V. P., who had so brutalized everyone who reported to him that none of them lasted more than a couple of years. (I was the Ancient Mariner, left behind to tell the tale.)

There was for me an almost unbelievable irony leading up to this unfortunate situation: back in Chicago, where I had worked very successfully in IT for the first 21 of my 23 years with the company, I would get into raging fights with this bully. Afterward, I would go into the nearby office of the marketing V. P., who was my friend, and say “tell about the farm, Dave.” Then Dave would tell me how, when he became president (which he eventually did), he would take away Franklynstein’s empire, and make him a consultant – which he also did!

[End of serendipity.]

Dave shot out the ceiling of our Chicago company and went to New York, where he jumped from peak to peak and disappeared into the mist high up the mountain. In the meantime, Franklynstein went to consult with a small company we had acquired in California. By and by the small company’s president – Dick – came to ask me to manage IT for him. (The department constituted the whole company except for some administrative and marketing people.) I consented after the usual dance, with the single added condition that Frank be gone when I got there. He agreed.

What happened at my farewell party would have been impossible at a company that was not gravely dysfunctional: the art director had masks made with Frank’s face on them. When I arrived at the party, there were sixty people wearing the masks. (My intense antagonism to the man was known throughout the company.)

But Dick had lied (a bad habit it turned out he had) about getting rid of Frank. He didn’t do it. Soon I began hearing Frank’s poisonous philosophy coming from Dick’s mouth. (Example: “Always be figuring out how to get rid of the bottom 20%.” That might be a good plan for cattle breeding.) After many months, when lava began to boil inside me, I kicked Frank out of my office, and he went to his rest in Florida. Soon after that, I tried to tip Dick’s palatial desk over on him, but the drawers rolled out onto the floor (along with all the standard desk-top props) and thwarted my effort. Dick was accustomed to servility; I was used to being treated with respect.

About then, Dick began to distinctly hear the air going out of his company, and I heard the hiss from my punctured career. I was 53, with no credentials at all – not even a trade school certificate – in aerospace in southern California in 1992, right after the end of the Cold War when Uncle Sam withdrew life support from the aerospace industry. Our kids were 10 and 14. What would you do? We bought a pet supply store.

 *****

Should I call this defiance a personality defect? Doesn’t matter. I seem to be stuck with it. I call it my Quixote Complex – tilting with the windmill knowing the whole time that its giant blades may well knock the shit out of me. But the longer I live, the more convinced I become that there’s very little we can do to alter our essential natures.

For years, I wondered where the defiance came from. I think I know now: it’s an Ulster Scot’s heritage. Our history is fascinating, our character triple-filtered: first the Romans built Hadrian’s wall to keep us out of England because they couldn’t tame us. Like-minded English filtered in while tame people went south. Then the English wanted Scots to move to Ireland (Ulster Province) to beat the hell out of the Irish. A certain subset of Scots were willing to do that.

The Ulster Scots thought the English did not treat them fairly; so the more stiff-necked among them left for the Promised Land, and ended up living hardscrabble lives in the Appalachians – the only real estate left by the time they got there. They have been over-represented in the armed forces ever since, from the Revolution to the present.

Virginia Senator James Webb wrote a book about them: Born Fighting. He wrote to redeem them from their reputation as fanatical rednecks. It can’t be done. Consider: Braveheart (William Wallace) – beheaded! (So much for stiff-neckedness.) The Hatfields and the McCoys, the Campbells and McDonalds, Andrew Jackson, Douglas MacArthur, Audie Murphy, and George S Patton – every one of them a little wobbly – or a lot.

Mark Twain, my patron saint, deserves an illustrious shelf by himself, maybe with Boswell and David Hume from the Old Country as supporting cast… (I tried to claim Faulkner and Emily Dickinson too, but couldn’t make it stick.) Considered fudging it – I wanted so badly to include them – but finally gave it up.

Remember Patrick Henry? “Give me liberty or give me death”? A Scot. Lesser gods: labor union sympathizers, from a time when it could lead to a severe beating from Pinkerton thugs – Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, and Burl Ives – and their hardy younger siblings: Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, Reese Witherspoon, and Shirley MacLaine.

There are more, but this is getting boring.

*****

 In the Army I had been what I regard as the subject of an accidentql management experiment.

First I was a cook, in Heidelberg, working within the empire of a mess officer who was a bully. He would occasionally find paperback books in a drawer in the kitchen. The routine was that he would throw them violently to the floor, and one of the cooks would run over meekly and pick them up. (Makes me think now of Manuel, the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He threw the books on the floor once when I was there alone. I walked over to them, kicked them as hard as I could, sent them flying about the kitchen, and left.

A recipe called for 30 onions, peeled and diced. He told the first cook to have me do that. I did it – after putting on my gas mask. He was incensed, but unsure whether he had the right to order me to take it off. Eventually he had me court-martialed for insubordination for another offense. The career cooks convinced me that the court martial was a formality; that I was doomed, headed for the stockade, where I would be progressively knocked about until at last I became submissive.

I thought since I was doomed I wouldn’t go quietly. I had been a boy preacher. I could speak with verve. I attacked Warrant Officer Clifton B. Fair for a sordid incident of drunkenness (an occupational hazard for “lifer” cooks) which he’d managed to keep out of his record. I said that I would obey any lawful order, but that servility was not on offer. Then I got right in his face – just inches away – and said, twice, with all the anger I could muster, “Don’t tread on me!”

The Officer of the Court was a Lithuanian-American. He must have been especially sensitive to my pitch, because he let me off. I was amazed, and of course delighted.

I was sent away 20 miles, to a field unit. One of the cooks told me that when I got there I should tell them I could type. Good typists who were also literate were rare. I became a company clerk (Radar’s job in M*A*S*H) working for more highly civilized civil engineers. By the time I finished my 2 years of involuntary servitude, I had a letter of commendation from the post commander.

Two styles of management, vastly different outcomes. Lesson learned.

 *****

 I am writing here about the huge drawbacks to authoritarianism; and that’s at the heart of what Chris Mooney is getting at below. (Note that he’s talking specifically about Tea Party conservatism, which is a Luddite approach completely contrary to the principles of the classical conservativism of, for example, Barry Goldwater, John Dean, or Joe Scarborough.) It’s a terrific, mind-blowing summary of volumes of research – a “meta-analysis”:

http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/154940/understanding_the_ideological_divide_between_liberals_and_conservatives_is_it_possible_for_us_to_get_along?page=entire

Where does this idea come from that drags down our culture, that unquestioning submission to authority is ever good? It was common in pre-war Germany, which should shriek a warning. The story below is especially revealing beneath its surface:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/college-basketball-coach-caught-tape-allegedly-abusing-player/story?id=12989220#.T35pUdW4tio

The coach is clearly a bully. His contemptible whining and blubbering obviously resulted from his getting caught – revealing the coward inside every bully. Then we see his ludicrous, delusional self-justification that can only result from an unexamined life. But some of the readers’ comments are dangerous for a free society. The ones supporting the coach can be summarized as “Man up!” Scary. Should we equate unquestioning submissiveness with masculinity? With any virtue? (Or with religious devotion, or with being a “good soldier”?)

Absolutely not.

Forward!

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