How We Lost Agency and Acquiesced to Power

The following article from the Brownstone Institute

Twenty-five years ago, I moved with my wife and three children to the type of prosperous inner-ring suburb—with its tree-lined streets and excellent public schools—that I thought I’d never be able to afford on my professor’s salary. But thanks to a dip in the market and a timely loan from my parents, we were able to buy a small house not far from the center of town. I was exultant. And for the first 4-5 years or so of our time there, little if anything broke my personal spell of happiness and gratitude. 

In the years immediately following September 11th, however, I began to notice social attitudes in friends and certain public figures that troubled me, attitudes that I now view as having lain the groundwork for the generally meek acceptance of the tyrannies that have been recently been visited upon us, as well as the tendency to quickly sign off on the many attempts being made today to undermine the legitimacy of some of our more important social conventions and institutions. 

As I look back, two particular incidents come to mind. 

Upon moving to town we joined a church, as much as anything else, to ensure that our children acquire some familiarity with the religious culture that had, in greater or lesser measure, done so much to shape the moral and cosmological outlook of the family members that had preceded them into this world. 

In the absence of a common family lexicon, we thought, intergenerational communication often withers, leaving children bereft of vertical referents and thus much more at the mercy of whatever ideas often predatorial-inclined peers and corporations cast in their direction. This was something we wanted to head off, and we believed that giving our kids the opportunity to, if nothing else, locate themselves both ethno-culturally, and in the broader continuum of Western history, might be of considerable worth. 

We joined the most liberal Catholic church in the area, one with an active gay ministry and very strong programs for the homeless as well as a mission program in Haiti. 

All went well, until the US invaded Iraq, and in the prayers for the faithful we were asked week after week, to “pray for the American troops who were bringing peace to the Middle East.” There was nary a word or a thought, however, for the tens of thousands of Iraqis that had been injured or killed by our unprovoked invasion. 

One day after mass I finally confronted the pastor and asked why, in light of the fact that the Pope had said quite clearly that the US attack on Iraq could in no way be considered a just war, he continued to celebrate the acts of US soldiers and simply ignore the unthinkable tragedies they had wrought in the lives of millions of Iraqis. After stumbling around for words, he finally said, “I agree with you. But, lots of people in our parish have relatives in the service and I really don’t want to offend them.”

At about the same time, a very big parcel of land became available adjacent to the historic center of the town. The town government began a much-announced public process of deciding the best way to utilize it. 

It soon became clear, however, that citizen hearings were a complete sham, a reality made apparent by the fact that the town a) was already promoting a developer’s fully hatched plan on its own websites and b) the sight of the town’s economic development director engaging in smiley chit-chat with the principle of the development company on the auditorium balcony, high above the common folk seeking to have their concerns addressed.  

During the weeks of the hearing process, I would talk to friends and to the parents of the other kids on my children’s sports team about what I saw as the rank corruption of the process. Most of the time, I just got blank stares. 

But those who did respond invariably said something like “So, I don’t get it, are you for it or against it?” 

What virtually no one seemed to comprehend, despite my using all manner of restatements and circumlocutions to express it, was that I was not talking about the inherent desirability, or not, of the project, but rather the quality of the process  being used to decide on an issue that would shape our community physically and fiscally for many years to come. 

I was flabbergasted. Outside of the small minority of us who were actively demanding more transparency, no one in our “nice” community had the least interest in the processes established to safeguard our inherent rights as citizens and taxpayers. All that mattered, it seemed, was that we might now have another cool place to shop and dine in the middle of town.

“Was it always this way?” I asked myself. 

Did ostensibly progressive pastors, in possession of papal teachings that gave them enormous leeway for challenging their congregations on the essential matter of the mass killing of human beings, always defer to the perceived sensitivities of those in their flock? 

Was the duty to safeguard citizen power and civic structures and pass them on intact to our children always seen as a stylized and archaic adjunct to the pursuit of more and better customer options? 

After much thought, I decided that “no,” this was not always the case. Something essential had changed. But what was it? 

In my view the thing that changed was our nearly wholesale exchange of the ethos of citizenship, with its concern for the preservation of abstract principles, for that of the consumer. 

Whereas, the citizen is charged quite explicitly with stopping and reflecting on the present in light of what has been said, done and established in the past, the consumer lives in a present conditioned by the imperative to take a headlong lunge into what he has been told is an ever-expanding and ever-improving future. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote of the second mindset in his essential Tourists and Vagabonds: 

For the consumers in the society of consumers, being on the move—searching, looking for, not-finding-it or more exactly not-finding-it-yet is not a malaise, but the promise of bliss; perhaps it is the bliss itself. Theirs is the kind of travelling hopefully which makes arriving into a curse…. Not so much the greed to acquire and possess, nor the gathering of wealth in its material tangible sense, as the excitement of a new and unprecedented sensation is the name of the consumer game. Consumers are first and foremost gatherers of sensations; they are collectors of things only in a secondary and derivative sense. 

Though consumer culture often presents itself as wildly progressive, and frequently presents citizen culture as stodgy and undynamic, in many ways just the opposite is true.

Viewed in the most basic sense, citizenship is a vocation rooted in the acceptance of controlled conflict, and the implied belief that that same refereed clash of articulated interests will, slowly but surely, lead us all to greater social advancement. 

In contrast, consumer culture largely obviates the question of power through its presentation of the world as a vast emporium to which any and all can accede with a minimum of difficulty. The key, as we are constantly told in large and small ways, is to not throw sand in the gears of the marvelous machine of inexorable progress and to instead work within its self-evidently sage and moral rules to acquire your personal seat at the table of plenty. 

That the ever titillating and ever phagocytic “spectacle” of consumerism as Debord called it might be heedlessly disappearing, important debates about what it means to be conscious, moral and human, as well as about how the disappearance of these essential conversations probably favors the interests of those already in possession of undue parcels of social and economic power, is never brought up. Neither is the stark and paradoxical fact that no great leap forward in social welfare has ever been generated by a program of mass conformity to purely transactional dictates. Quite the opposite, in fact. 

A deeply pernicious byproduct of this enveloping “don’t rock the boat” ethos is what the poet and philosopher Robert Bly called the “Sibling Society,” a place where adults actively eschew the responsibilities invested in them by dint of their age, skill, or fortuitous social ascent. 

To consciously exercise social responsibility is to necessarily court and provoke conflict and disappointment in those around you. And while it is never wise to reflexively ignore the negative reactions one harvests from taking well-meditated stands within the family or in the public square, it is less wise still to proactively retreat from the field of conflict simply to “keep the peace.”

Keeping the peace at all costs has become a sacred and unquestionable goal among large parts of our society, especially among its more credentialed sectors. This implacably strict pose positions multitudes into a spirit of acquiescence to power, no matter how dangerous or devastating the results. 

And it is this cultural outlook that has generated a sizable cohort of parents who believe their first task as parents is to please their children, something that consequently leaves no small number of their offspring with aspirational models and palpable guidance as they make their way toward adulthood. 

And it is an attitude that has greatly enabled the ceaseless bullying of cancel culture at our centers of teaching and learning. It is also, to go full circle, this same mentality that gives us priests unwilling to invoke the authority with which they have been invested before their flocks, and nice people in nice communities unwilling to engage with basic questions of democratic governance when contemplating how best to chart the future of their communities. 

And finally it is this disposition, this failure to assume and make use of social and moral capital that one presumably accrues in the course of life that, in my view, made the elites’ task of imposing its various and wholly undemocratic articles of tyranny upon us during the past 30 months rather simple. 

Big power loves nothing more than a population that is largely indifferent to its own social and political agency, where adults have divested themselves of the vertical influence bequeathed to them for the purpose of molding the young, and if circumstances require it, imposing their will upon them. When adults abandon this essential task they send out two screaming messages. 

The first, which quickly arrives at the eyes and ears of their children, is that there is really no higher life law than the pursuit of material comfort through acquiescence to the status quo, an order whose “laws” have, of course, been inordinately shaped by the ultra-powerful. 

The second, which quickly arrives to the eyes and ears of the same ultra-powerful is that if many of the most privileged members of what we might call the aspirant class below them are unwilling to assume the mantle of adulthood in their homes and communities, then they’ve got very little to worry about when they next find it opportune to strip us of a few more of the prerogatives that, according to our constitution, belong to us in perpetuity.  

That’s not a future scenario I’m interested in. And you?

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