Amid the Respectables in the Heartland

In a recent post titled “Investing in Tyranny,” Butler Shaffer noted that the Germans who lived under Hitler’s regime had thought they were free and that, likewise, on a recently broadcast TV show, “with one notable exception [Wayne Rogers],” the participants “found nothing objectionable in what the NSA was doing” in its spying on millions of Americans. Like the Germans of 1933—45, the Americans of today, for the most part, believe they are free.

I recently had a personal experience with this kind of thinking. I went to St. Louis to give a talk to a group of people who gather occasionally to discuss economic and political subjects. I had been told that most participants in this group are conservatives. When I arrived, I found them to be nearly all affluent, white, middle-aged and elderly people — a perfect aggregation of what I have long categorized as the “respectable” people.

I admit that my categorization is not simply a reflection of how I believe these sorts of people view themselves; it is also colored by my own experiences in life. In my youth, I belonged to a group that certainly did not qualify for membership in the respectable crowd, not even in the rural and small-town world in which I lived. We were too poor, too ill-educated, too deeply engaged in manual labor in earning our living. We had come to central California from a backwoods part of the country (Oklahoma and Texas), and we attended highly suspect churches (of Pentecostal and other fundamentalist Protestant sects). The world of my youth was not a sharply hierarchical one — all children attended the same government schools, for example, for no other schools existed, and in those days nobody considered home-schooling — yet in my group we knew perfectly well that the upper-crust people looked down on us. I did not have the feeling that any of us was consumed by resentment of this condescension. We did not so much embrace it as we merely accepted that by virtue of being “working people,” we occupied a lower rung on the social ladder. Although it seemed an accomplished social fact that some people were seen as “better” than we were, we did not believe that they really were: at bottom, they just had more money than we had.

At St. Louis, I gave my talk, and the assembled persons listened respectfully, as respectable people generally do. When the Q-and-A was opened up, however, the onslaught began. Only a few of the people in attendance were not palpably hostile to what I had said. One of those few sympathetic listeners, a guest attending the group’s discussions for the first time, wrote me a few days later, “When you first stated your position, and I saw the outburst from the audience, I thought they might string you up from the light fixtures!” I tried to answer each question calmly, with reason and evidence, but my efforts proved unavailing. The respectables, it seemed, considered my position as tantamount to treason.

What exactly had I said to trigger such an enraged response? Although much of my talk pertained to earlier episodes of national emergency and the growth of government in the twentieth century, the brief remarks I made about the present crisis were what struck the raw nerves of these conservative respectables. My expressions of disapproval in regard to the government’s recent invasions of liberties, in particular, elicited expressions of stunned disbelief. I had said that the government’s announced claim is that the president may, at his sole pleasure, arrest, incarcerate, and punish, even put to death, anyone he describes as a terrorist, wholly denying due process of law to the accused terrorist. One lady adamantly insisted that I say exactly whose rights had actually been so violated. When I replied that the leading case concerns a U.S. citizen named Jose Padilla, I thought she might expire from apoplexy. No sooner had I uttered Padilla’s name than she half shouted, half sputtered indignantly “a terrorist!” “How do we know,” I replied, “if he does not receive due process of law? Are we to accept the government’s claims solely on its officials’ say-so?” Well, for this lady and for most of the others in the room, of course, we were to accept all such claims on the government’s say-so. These respectables are simply incapable of imagining that the government they so blindly and enthusiastically support might do anything to harm THEM or, by extension, any other similarly respectable persons in the United States — clearly, the only people who matter.

Some members of the crowd seemed wholly indifferent not only to the fate of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq and to the fate of the men caged at Guantanamo, but also to the fate of any noncitizen anywhere. They have somehow adsorbed the quaint notion that the U.S. Constitution does not apply to noncitizens, even though the Bill of Rights makes no mention of anyone’s citizenship status. Thus, for example, the Fifth Amendment states “No person shall be held to answer . . . , nor shall any person be subject . . . ,” and the Sixth Amendment refers only to “the accused.” My audience seemed taken aback by these aspects of the Constitution and seemed to regard them as the Founders’ mistakes, provisions that no longer need be honored. Typical conservative reverence for their blessed Constitution: these ignoramuses have no idea even of what that document says!

One elderly gentleman, a retired attorney perhaps, insisted on putting the same question to me four times in a row, insisting that I give him a yes-or-no answer to a question about how long it would take before a certain outcome occurred, even though I had already answered in a substantive way by saying that I did not believe that the event he had described would ever occur. He seemed to take great delight in my finally answering a question about some future contingency by saying “I don’t know,” as if he had publicly tripped me up and exposed me as someone who didn’t know what he was talking about. Such childishness seemed out of place for a man in his seventies.

Another gentleman dismissed my account of the classic crisis-response process evident in the events since 9/11 by saying that mere criticism has no value; he insisted that I say “what would YOU have done?” I replied that most important was what I would NOT have done: in particular, I would not have unleashed a U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, whose government and people had not been shown to have had anything to do with the attacks of 9/11 or to pose a substantial threat to the United States. This statement nearly brought the house down on me. “But what WOULD you have done?” my interrogator insisted. I replied that I would have treated the attacks as a crime and therefore would have undertaken the appropriate measures, in cooperation with police forces in other countries, to find out who committed or served as accomplices in the commission of the crime and to bring those persons to justice. This response only provoked greater crowd fury, because I would not admit that “we are at war” against a vast network of terrorists bent (only because of their twisted minds) on our utter destruction and therefore that all warlike actions whatsoever — bombing, invading, and occupying other countries, causing unlimited “collateral damage,” taking prisoners who have no rights, and so forth — are appropriate measures for responding to 9/11.

My sympathetic correspondent later wrote, “When I saw, in the eyes of the audience, the anger to your statement that 9/11 should be considered a police action, I realized that these people had no critical thinking skills.” Further, “I also realized by the anger shown, that they felt you were trying to attack their belief system. You were not trying to attack their belief system, only [to] state your own. Though that is, at this present time, still your right, I don’t think THEY believe it is your right. I think in their eyes you were a traitor of some sort.”

Well, I got out of St. Louis with my skin. I have received no death threats since giving my talk. Time will tell whether the people who invited me will send the honorarium and expense reimbursement they promised. Coming away from the event, my overwhelming impression was that the government has absolutely nothing to worry about. All the powers that be are fully on its side: the people with the money, the social standing, the education, the connections — in short, the respectable people.

Meanwhile, I find myself still where I was when I first came onto the scene in this curiously torn and conflicted country more than sixty-two years ago, still fenced away from the green, manicured gardens of the respectables, still among the “wretched refuse yearning to breathe free.” Frankly, I’d rather be here than there.