the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
POMP AND POMPOSITY
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The Death of Nixon
The Death of Nixon
I was working for the state when Richard Nixon died, in a position where participation in a flag-raising ceremony was a requirement. I viewed this as a religious rite, and was reluctant to take part, not being of that patriotic religion, but did so anyway. Strangely to most observers, I actually took on the job of hoisting the federal flag, because that was the first to go up, and by doing so I could view the act as a strictly mechanical work task, and was not required to stand respectfully and witness the ceremony. I was distraught to learn, after Nixon’s death, that he was to be accorded the mourning honor of a flag at half-mast, and for a full month, no less. My first attempt to deal with this involved simply taking the flag to half-mast and stopping, thus making the assignment mechanical again: take this object, put it in this place. When I was ordered to follow the protocol of raising the flag fully before lowering it halfway, every morning, I relinquished the job to a true believer, in disgust. This was far too much. She, this true believer, although an exceptionally good and decent person, was also a traditionalist, and quite religious (both as a Christian and as a patriot), and I believe she accepted the government’s view: whatever the deceased may have done, he was still the president, and it would be an admission of a flawed system if he were not given full honors, indeed treated like a dead king. So he received a state funeral, he was buried in the presence of the high establishment, including every one of his successors, and eulogized by Bill Clinton, who held the post at the time. To do less, to diminish the status of president to something that one holds only so long as one deserves it, would have diminished the authority upon which every president relies ― a reverential, arbitrary authority. To me, it mattered not if Nixon was a master of foreign policy (which I dispute), or if he had given good advice to his successors (which I doubt). The man was a disgrace. He shamed himself by his actions, and never once accounted for them. He did not once give us reason to rehabilitate him, not after the despicable actions he took in office, which virtually no one countenanced. We need not go into the despicable actions upon which he built his career (anti-communist witch hunts, for instance), which a majority did countenance. The fact is that, so as to preserve the illusion that there is something great and noble about our monarchy, the state and most of its subjects willfully ignored the true place of this individual in history long enough to give him a dignified burial. And saints and heroes die unheralded every day, but no one thinks of that, because their dignity is of no use to the state.
The Imperial Presidency
I do not call Yankeeland a monarchy flippantly. I know that the president as head of government has limited power, and as head of state no power. That is hardly important, given the prevailing attitudes. We fought a war presumably so we would not have a king, even a king with limited power. George Washington was actually encouraged to assume the throne. He declined, but he need not have bothered. What he inaugurated was a monarchy not so different from that which George III was bringing to a close in Britain. Our president is elected, and is expected therefore to serve as a tribune, giving voice to the will of the people, and using the office for the people’s purposes. Yankees relish this tribunal role; they function as a gigantic constituency, and expect payoffs from the president much as they do from their more immediate representatives in Congress. But they are at heart monarchists, they love a good show, they love the pomp and ceremony, and they want the presidency to have its dignity and distance so that it might lend a little dignity and importance to their lives as well. For this they gaily sacrifice the liberty, equality, and dignity that would otherwise attach to the office of citizenship. Of what use is a republic in name only? But it does, in a way, belong to the people, because a monarchy is what the people desire. There is no question that the United States is a functioning democracy. The voters get exactly what they ask for, whether they have any business getting it or not.
In nothing is the imperial status of the chief executive better symbolized than the title of address. I am led to understand that ‘Mr. President’ was originally taken to be a humble title, to emphasize the office’s true nature as an elected tribunate, in contrast with the inherited ranks at the heads of other states, but there is no humility in its use today. Bill Clinton was just “Bill” to Arkansans as governor. We may see him playing the saxophone, and know that he has briefs covering his genitals, but how many of us would dare to call him “Bill” today? Paul Tsongas, falsely credited with being modest, could practically be seen to salivate at the prospect of assuming the title ‘Mr. President’. George Bush apparently considered the assumption the greatest achievement of his life. Ross Perot liked to make much of the fact that he had individuals around him use his first name, but based on his behavior since, I have no doubt that, had he been elected (which thankfully we were spared), this folksy touch would have been as historical as his electoral success is today. And this is just considering the contestants of 1992. The likelihood is that the temptation is too great for any person who has the possibility of reaching the position. We may have had several farmers take the office, including Jefferson, but his idea of the yeoman farmer was a myth. You cannot aspire to the pinnacle of the empire unless you think like an emperor.
To address parents by their relational terms is taken as cute form of affection (ignoring the fact that it is not a spontaneous act by the child but a result deliberately orchestrated by the parents, who of course teach the child how to speak), but I see it as part of a disturbing pattern. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle, Aunt, Mr. This, Dr. That, Father Whoever: the average child can live to adulthood and not address a single member of the preceding generation by its familiar name. If that is not meant to create distance in intergenerational relationships, that is unquestionably the result. Upon achieving adulthood, the individual is still expected to address the other generation as before, until every last one of them is dead. It would be a pleasure to discover the wisdom of the elders without having it forcibly implied from the moment of birth. We may as well adopt the military formula of ranks, if the intent is so clearly to install an obligation to obey.
The military is certainly an obvious and easy case for the culture of titles. Indeed, veterans of the military carry their ranks around with them for life, as if the rest of us were obligated to treat them as general officers (or captains, or lieutenants, or privates first class, with the unenlisted stationed forever at buck private). But there are others just as insistent. Physicians graduate from medical school and practically cease to have first names. They introduce themselves by title, as if it were a name. They routinely patronize nurses, orderlies, even patients, regardless of how old these individuals are. And the culture encourages it. The octogenarian calls her surgeon “Doctor Hart”, while he calls her “Betty”, or “dear”, even if he is thirty. That is not, of course, as ridiculous as church etiquette, where a post-seminarian in his twenties is “Father Joseph” to his sixty-year-old second cousin.
The state has a religion of its own, a religion in which all subjects are expected to participate, the deference for which is perpetuated by its own set of exalted titles. Once a Senator, always a Senator. Once a representative, always a Congressman. (How is it that a title of patricians from ancient ROMA is an honor, but one which indicates service for the common people is shunned?) George Bush, for whom titles were the foundation of his self-worth, once publicly corrected himself for referring to a newly-confirmed nominee as “Judge Souter” instead of the “Mr. Justice Souter” to which he was suddenly entitled. I once witnessed a speaker at the National Press Club introduce the visiting president and even ambassador from Κύπρος each as “his excellency”. Did or did not the Declaration of Independence say something about equality? Did or did not the founders of the United States throw the nobility out on its ears?
In most of the English cultures, we no longer distinguish, in pronouns of address, between singular and plural. This is a result of the practice, continued today by les français, of using the plural as a formal mode of address for single individuals ― which today would mean addressing a stranger as “y’all”. Eventually we ceased to use the familiar singular (‘thou’) for anyone. A similar phenomenon is happening in the espańol cultures of the new world, where the formal plural, ‘ustedes’, is used for the familiar plural as well. ‘Usted’ is easily the most stilted of the European formal pronouns. It is a contracted form of ‘vuestra merced’. How gratifying to your physician to be called “your mercy”. But ask any lawyer who needs a ruling from a judge, or any reporter who needs access to an elected official, or any patient who puts its life in a surgeon’s hands, the value of formal respect, and the consequences of a breach in etiquette. The issue is not respect. The issue is power and equality. We retain our equality, or we give up our power. If we are already powerless, we are at someone’s mercy. Putting that in words is a mere formality.
Titles are meant to confer, and confirm, status. They are meant to perpetuate power. They are meant to preserve the culture wherein individuals voluntarily assume a subordinate position, and obey their supposed superiors without question. They are, finally, instruments of dominion. There can be no culture of stewardship on Earth until this hideous practice of address is ended.
© O.T. FORD
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