Shills, Paid and Unpaid

At least Maggie Gallagher has an excuse.

The Bush administration paid the pundit-intellectual $21,500 through the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the administration’s "pro-marriage" initiative — you know, family values and all that, as in steal from others to line your pockets in exchange for which you say what the government wants you to say. Her excuse for not telling readers that she was a mouthpiece: she forgot (“I would have [disclosed the payoff], if I had remembered it”).

The revelation by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post follows the previous discovery that radio personality Armstrong Williams took in a cool $241,000 contract with the Department of Education (the one that the Republicans used to claim should be abolished) to pump for the “No Child Left Behind” policy.

Now, it’s true that both might have otherwise said and written precisely what they got paid to say and write. In fact, they got the contracts because they both have influence and generally agree with what the Bush administration wants. The money, however, does serve a purpose: it secures the relationship between the intellectual and state both as a reward and as an inducement to toe the line. They become employees of the state, and behave as such, just as the Bush administration has devoured the minds of many thousands of people who have left private life to serve his majesty.

What’s interesting here is not these precise cases. Governments have always known that they don’t have to budget too generously when it comes to buying intellectuals. Most can be had rather cheaply. The real payoff for many of these people — and there are undoubtedly many more — is less tangible. They like the sense that their services are valued by powerful people. In serving as an echo chamber for the regime’s priorities, they can share to some extent in the thrill that comes with exercising power, which they think of as having an impact on history.

But if it doesn’t turn out right, these paid intellectuals can always repudiate what they said or did: after all, they were paid to take the position they did. One is reminded of the interesting experiment in social psychology conducted by Festinger and Carlsmith in 1959. They found that the more people were paid to say things they don’t believe, the more likely these people will be to repudiate the opinions later. On the other hand, those people who are induced to lie without personal benefit are more likely to stick to their opinions. In other words, it’s not those who lie for money we should worry about it; it’s those who lie for free who are the real danger.

Which raises a question more profound than why Gallagher and Williams did what they did: what excuse do the rest of the Republican intellectuals have for their behavior? Day after day, they crank out the most absurd articles and treatises in defense of the indefensible so long as it is being pushed by the Bush administration. They wallow in their hatred of what they consider leftism even as they work to build a state with the size and power that hardly any leftist in the country would call for or even welcome. Those of us who were embarrassed by the slavish tendencies of the left in the 1990s to defend Clinton were unprepared to see the same behavior on the right, but with far more intensity.

Without reviewing the egregious history of this regime, and all the destruction, death, and debt it has wrought, we can only marvel at how the propagandists view every bit of bad news as a signal to work harder to portray the Bush administration as infallibly glorious. The Clintonites must have been squeamish about their defenses of his shady deals and peccadilloes. But how can that compare to the Bushites and their celebration of war crimes and fiscal wreckage?

There is no real point in demonstrating the extent of their slavishness. In just a few clicks just now, from only one source, I found this: “Future generations will praise his idealism, courage, and audacity. They will appreciate that he embarked on one of the most breath-taking adventures in human history” and this: “George W. Bush is a man of deep religious faith and unwavering loyalty to his wife, family, and country. His own political story is remarkable” and this: “Americans should be congratulated for rejecting the slippery slope of moral relativism and endorsing Bush’s steadfast leadership…” and this: “President Bush’s goal to support the growth of democratic movements is not far-fetched. The United States should continue to be democracy’s midwife and help countries though the difficult periods of democratic transition” and this: “What conservatives understood then and what President Bush understands now is that America itself is a radical nation, founded on the revolutionary principle that self-government is simultaneously the best form of government and the most moral. And that lovers of liberty in all parties should seek to conserve that legacy. The circumstances we face today are new, but the principles are eternal. So yes, George W. Bush is a revolutionary, but he is merely the latest in a long line of American revolutionaries.”

There are a lot of words to describe the above (salaaming, etc.) but clear-headed is not among them. The cult of personality was fully revealed after Bush’s inaugural address, which the conservatives are struggling to immortalize, as if history is made by the largest possible number of craven fulminations on blogs and websites. Bush stands up and says, in effect, “I will bring liberty to the world!” and the slaves of the GOP all stand to give a rousing cheer that lasts and lasts, and none dares be the first to stop clapping.

Of course, many of those who wrote to praise the speech had a hand in its writing so they too might have an excuse, but what about lesser lights among the pundit class as well as the rank-and-file of Republican voters? It’s a measure of how easy it is for the soul to be corrupted by power worship.

Never wonder again how it is that the pharaohs were treated as gods, how Kim Il Sung and Nicholai Ceausescu got away with making monuments and billboards to themselves and forcing everyone in the country to address them by endlessly proliferating honorifics, or how the greatest despots in world history were surrounded by sycophants until their last breath. The explanation isn’t financial; it is intellectual and spiritual.

And if you disagree? Peter Robinson noted the most obvious point that Bush’s speech was not conservative at all but rather “a thoroughgoing exaltation of the state.” But later he repudiated his position with the words “I recant” and “I was wrong.” Sorry, no contract for you, Mr. Robinson. Where Robinson was wrong in the first place, and what he didn’t understand, is that Bush’s speech was in fact conservative: its thoroughgoing statism is conservatism. Conservatism seeks power, adores power, exalts power, and has only one agenda: more power.

The sickening personality cult that has formed around Bush is only one aspect of this, but it is an inevitable one. No matter what form of government, whether monarchical, democratic, or communist, the belief that the person at the top is more godlike than the rest of us is everywhere a feature of what Mises called statolatory, the view that the state is an “eternal and superhuman institution beyond the reach of earthly frailties.”

The obvious examples of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Mussolini stand out, but to a much lesser extent even the local mayor of your town benefits from the glow of power. People exaggerate the personal merits of people with power, romanticizing their personal histories and fantasizing about their “vision” of the future. This has been true from the ancient world to our own, and probably stems from some madness in the soul of man. (The really smart political leaders feign to repudiate these cults, as Caesar pretended to refuse the crown.)

Intellectually, the tendency toward power worship was torn asunder by the great liberal revolution that began in the middle ages and culminated in 1776, with the generation that proclaimed that political rulers were worthy of distrust, in need of being restrained, and ultimately dispensable. This attitude toward politics came about not because the liberals hated the people with power, but because they saw power itself as destructive of the order that liberty itself creates. They came to realize that the good society is not created by great leaders but by the coordinated actions of all individuals in society in their private and commercial lives. It was this revelation that pulled back the curtain and showed the whole world what power has always conspired to hide: the people at the top are pretentious fools, and a source of disorder.

The problem with Gallagher and Williams is not that they were paid to say what they believed. It is what they believe, namely that the person of George W. Bush will restore the family and that the person of George W. Bush will make sure that no child is left behind. These are the views of totalitarians, not advocates of a free society. If you are going to sell your soul to the state, and try to fob off state control and war as the essence of freedom, it makes sense to at least have something to show for it. The overwhelming number of Bush worshippers get nothing in exchange for their sacrifice of heart, mind, body, and soul.

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