One of the unique aspects of American culture is the use of political comedy to deflate what has, in Europe, been the province of tragedy or horror. If the current snoop reach of the Bush Administration becomes generally imposative, you’ll hear about it through the comedy circuit.
A man on the phone is dutifully listening to his mother-in-law. Since she’s droning on about her favorite subjects, his attention wanders from her voice to a strange, very muted, background hum. He doesn’t know where it’s coming from. As she continues on, and his own choice of words reveals an undertone of annoyance, a third voice bursts into the conversation:
"I’m Joe Blank, an agent with the National Security Agency. I’m obliged to let you know that you’ve now been classified, at the official level, as paranoid."
"I knew it!" the mother-in-law yells, and another subject is added to her list of favorites…
The underlying backbone behind such jokes is the fact that Americans have protected themselves from the traditional organs of tyranny through self-government. The police are not that frightening because an American can conceptualize enforcing his or her own rights. He or she can envision taking up self-protection through, say, learning how to fight or by carrying a pacifying weapon, such as pepper spray or a Taser. Property can be protected through signing up with a security service, or even by self-administering such protection through setting up a system of webcams. Owning and learning how to use a gun provides reassurance that any foreign invader "isn’t going to conquer me," even if the Government of the United States itself falls. The end result of the pursuit of self-protection is an inability to treat the traditional organs of State with any kind of awe.
Even the 9/11 attack reinforces this custom. How did the wreckage of the World Trade Center get cleaned up? Not through government officials undertaking the job while the people stood docilely by so as not to intrude, but largely by private initiative, which was only overseen by government officials. When a disaster is met with private passivity, Americans think there’s something wrong with the people victimized by the calamity. It is voluntarism of this sort which makes it conceivable that the companies who are in vulnerable buildings will set up private radar systems so as to catch out a future terrorist attack in the offing — which would save lives, if not property.
The effect of this custom can be seen in how government is held up as necessary in political discourse: what is unique about America is that government is not sanctified, it is sold. Rather than declaring individual self-defense to be "out of the question," American government officials and apologists take care to elaborate upon the dark consequences of taking the law into your own hands. Rather than portraying a defeat of the United States government as a prelude to utter ruin, apologists for government portray the remnants of the military as benevolent overseers — professionals — who would be happy to co-operate with self-organized citizen militias if such took place. The hysteria surrounding potential nuclear holocaust didn’t go over too well with the American public, as both custom and the free market kicked in. Any whipping up of hysteria was seen by businesspeople as demand generation for, say, fallout shelter designs and products.
Pragmatism, as a political philosophy, is an attempt to come to terms with this inner psychological independence. What makes it seem all-American is the undertone of "tyrant, back off!" which it reconciles the pro-government student of it to. Since many Americans are convinced that they could govern themselves if the traditional organs of State vanished, they do see government services as only services, which can be gotten elsewhere in an emergency. Dire warnings about mass "anarchy" if the police and military evaporate are relatively easy to cast as personal plaints. The end result is that Pragmatist political philosophy builds upon the all-American myth of the state: it is in the government’s own interest to let independence of this sort flourish, as it both relieves the government official of responsibility for all that can go wrong, and also encourages efficiency in government through the competition of private solutions to specific government-handled problems. The stereotypical "dumb bureaucrat" is someone who fails to grasp this totality, which many real ones try to do so with casual Hegelianism, whose foundation is Utilitarianism. If there’s any all-American brand of government Utopianism, it would be the dream that government can step in to solve, completely, any problem before private initiative does. American utopias are systems of dreams built upon rescue fantasies.
All of these customs of self-government explain why there is, to a European or even to a Canadian mind, a shocking lack of "respect" for government in America. Only in America can a commissioned lieutenant who refuses to obey an order he deems illegal become a folk hero for doing so. Only in America can a sitting President be criticized with such heat. Only in America can a genre of popular music be based in hostility towards the police. Only in America can the ruin of the government be contemplated matter-of-factly. Only in America can there arise middle-class anarchism as a viable political movement. American psychological independence makes it all possible.
Except in one area — a telling one.
To see what it is, imagine that you’re an upper-class status hoarder who wants to put the middle class "in their place." How would you go about doing it?
In the olden days, such a public putdown was relatively straightforward: knock on the Cabots’ door, or the door of the in-town equivalent of the Cabot family, and get let in. The trouble with such an approach nowadays, though, is that it doesn’t carry too far in terms of "shock and awe." Being seen by the Cabots is little more impressive than gaining membership to the most exclusive local club, which itself provides little more than an ego boost, whether a necessary one or not. "I am a member in good standing of the Statesman’s Club" carries less impact among the general public than "I lived in homeless shelters for four months and held my own there" does. The continual eruption of "proletarian chic" and the continual search for "street cred" in the upper stratae gives this away.
The other traditional status geegaws, such as meeting the President or muscling a legislator, are too evanescent to matter all that much. If either gets miffed, he or she can drain the status brag inherent in such a maneuver by letting the local bully do so too. Publicity pictures showing great friendship with the great leader(s) don’t matter that much either, as they now can be had by merely plunking down a sizable campaign contribution. (Watch for vacation trip packages being offered.) None of these techniques carry that much put-down value for the true bluenose. But one status gesture pulled by a private citizen definitely does:
Calling up the Federal Reserve, barking at the receptionist to be put through to the Chairman of the Board of Governors, and getting the Chair himself on the line. This is the present-day equivalent of "meeting the Cabots," and it would reverberate nation-wide.
Why? Ostensibly, Governor Bernanke is merely a top government official like any other. Getting access to his time would seem to be of merely local significance, like getting invited to the home of Clarence Thomas. Why would a person who can successfully buttonhole the Chairman of the Federal Reserve be seen — nationally — as a reincarnation of H.L. Mencken himself?
The reason is that traditional American self-reliance, in the field of monetary commerce, is gone. People who would quickly stand up to the IRS, and even advocate its abolition, blank out at the question of how to restore the gold standard. People who think nothing of making plans to fend off a home invasion pale at the thought of stockpiling gold to use as money as a hedge against a currency collapse. People who see self-organized neighborhood civil defense plans as an interesting way to meet the neighbors blanch at the thought of setting up a neighborhood barter market that uses gold as currency. A foreigner who casually suggests abolition of the Federal Reserve "because it scares you Americans too much" would be greeted with general shock — the same kind of shock that commonplace political Americanisms are greeted with in Europe, and even in Canada for a few of them.
Yes, if Americans have a Europeanized mind, it would be with respect — with reverence! — to money and banking. Just as the European can’t imagine life without a State except as one of misery and Hobbesian brutality; just as the typical Canadian can’t imagine life without Canada’s Parliament except as one of misery and nationwide riots; so it is that the typical American cannot imagine life under a 100% gold standard except as one of misery and general destitution. Just as the typical European thinks that the only way to survive in anarchy would be to live in a private fortress; just as the typical Canadian imagines that the only way to survive without a sitting Parliament would be to sign up with the Hell’s Angels; so it is that the typical American thinks that the only way to survive a currency collapse is through buying a subsistence farm. These opinions emanate from people whose wings have been clipped.
No-one jokes (publicly) about the Federal Reserve in the same way that the military and police are often made fun of. This says volumes.
It could be argued, and often is, that the lack of such jokes and corresponding disrespect shows a general contentment with the currency and banking system as it is. If so, why then the fear and awe? Why the generally-accepted insistence that any critic of the Federal Reserve must become a (perhaps self-educated) monetary economist or else a mere crank or pleader? Why such uncharacteristic deference to a single institution, then?
The joke with which I started off this piece can be modified, only slightly, to make it profoundly unfunny, like so:
A man is on the phone with his broker and the jargon she’s feeding him is lulling him into noticing a strange, if muted, background hum on the line. He doesn’t know where it’s coming from. As she continues on, and his own choice of words reveals an undertone of resentment against the federal government, a third voice bursts into the conversation:
"I’m Joe Blank, an agent with the National Security Agency. I’m obliged to let you know that I myself now know what stocks you’re holding, and that I know the FRB governor."
"For God’s sake, don’t rile them!" the broker yells, and another anxiety is added to both of their lists of fears…
Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] lives in Canada – a nation which had no bank runs during the Great Depression, and got a central bank in 1937 as a “reward” for it. He is currently working on a book on Objectivism. Visit his website.