Questioning Authority

Questioning Authority September 10, 2008

barney.jpgI got into a little email dustup recently with some people over McCain and Palin. In reply to some of the glowing testimonials to Gov. Palin that had been sent me, I made the point that she has been the governor of Alaska, an entire state with fewer people in it than the single city of San Francisco, for less than two years. And if that so-called “executive experience” was so great, then former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani, who for eight years ran a city with 12 times the population of the entire state of Alaska, should REALLY be something special. (And frankly, I would much rather have Rudy Giuliani a beat away from John McCain’s 72-year-old heart than Sarah Palin.)

I got back this:

“She has more guts, knowledge than you give her credit for, Sir. Give a woman a break, she probably runs rings around you and your opinions! Have you governed a State?”

Cough, cough. Uh-huh.

I remember the first time someone called me arrogant.

I was living in this little mountain town out west, and I made the mistake one day of noticing the politics. There was this meadow I cared about, and they were going to rip it up and turn it into condos, so I got involved.

Pretty soon I figured out that some of the people involved were lying sacks of spit, willing to twist every rule to get what they wanted.

I was painfully shy when I first got into it. The first time I got up in public to speak, my hands trembled, my voice wobbled, and my mouth was so dry I could barely talk.

But caring about something, fighting for it, changes you. You learn there are more important things than your own frailties, and somehow you start to shed them. However it happened, there came a time when I was still pretty shy, but I didn’t let it stop me as much. I discovered I had a bit of actual talent for speaking and writing in public.

It only works when I care about the subject, and when I know what I’m talking about, but when those two conditions apply, I can talk to a crowd, a camera, a microphone or a newspaper audience with equal ease. I can also talk to people in positions of authority.

It didn’t take me long after the first time I did it that I discovered something profound: An “authority” is just a person.

Authorities are not necessarily special people, they’re not necessarily knowledgeable people, they’re not even necessarily nice people. They’re just people who hold a designated position or a momentary spotlight. And it’s the position itself which is overlaid with the patina of authority.

Authority is a reaction that happens IN YOU to the person who holds the position. Naturally the guy in the position assumes he has the right to have you react that way, but you find that people around you sometimes expect it too.

To our beastly hindbrains, it’s a pure dominance-submission interaction. He’s dominant, therefore you’re supposed to be submissive.

But suppose, because you grew up in America or some similarly enlightened western culture, you’re wired up to expect something better-than-average in your authorities. Suppose you decide that the right of respect normally given to authority has to be earned. Earned by something more than just sitting in a fancy chair, or wearing a funny hat, or sitting behind a desk, or standing in a spotlight, or wearing a blue costume with a silver metal shield on it.

This is not arrogance. It’s simply refusing to play the game of giving them the reaction they expect. It’s turning off the beastly automatic switch inside you and replacing it with a smarter switch, one that checks your values first before allowing the respect.

In my view, this is a simple recognition of equality. We’re equal until you prove we’re not – until you do something that shows you’re better than me, or worse.

And who has the right to apply that evaluation? As an equal until proven different, I do. You do. We all do.

More than that, we all have the responsibility. You MUST evaluate me. I MUST evaluate you. We both MUST evaluate all the presumed authorities among us.

Why? Because there’s nobody else to do it.

To me, this is a very American thing to do. We tossed out the practice of bending our knees for royalty more than 200 years ago. And, proving the value of the point, a helluva lot of good things happened because of it. They happened right here in America, and then spread to the rest of the world – because everybody saw the results. In those places where dictators and kings were replaced by officials elected by the people, science and commerce and freedom grew like weeds.

None of this is to say I don’t have respect for anybody. Put me in a room with Carl Sagan, back when he was alive, and I would have stuttered and fumbled in awe. Shaking the hand of Rosa Parks would make me feel most unworthy. Sit me down for dinner with a known expert on business, or history, or biology, and I’d do a LOT more listening than talking.

But the Pope? Eh. Just some guy in a big weird hat, doing something I have no respect for. President Bush? A little man with more power than brains, eroding the meaning of an office which I actually do respect, and for which I disrespect him all the more. A cop cruising past on the street? In my judgment, he might be a hero, might be a decent guy, might be an abusive a-hole … but it would be because of his actions, and not because of his uniform.

This is not some rogue idea I came up with on my own. It’s a deeply American idea, and it’s something I learned growing up in Texas, in these very United States.

But back to arrogance. I was in this political thing in that small town, and disagreed with the mayor and the town council over this meadow issue (and later, a lot of other things). And their response to my questions and open disagreement was that I was “arrogant.”

I laughed at the irony of it, but I was angry too. Not only because they didn’t seem to understand what they were saying, but that so many other people didn’t understand it either.

They were saying that I should respect them, should respect their opinions about these important matters, without question. Because they were authorities.

They were saying that IF I ASSUMED I HAD EQUAL RIGHTS to judge or evaluate a public issue or a public figure, I was arrogant.

Get it? THEY weren’t arrogant for saying the equivalent of “Shut up, you little  toad, you’re not qualified to have an opinion.” I was arrogant for saying “Hey, I have an equal right to question and to speak.”

So here I am in this email volley, questioning the qualifications and heart of Sarah Palin. Expressing my opinion.

And someone says “Have you governed a state?”

Well, no, I haven’t.

But neither have most of us. I doubt if there are 300 people alive today in the US who HAVE been the governors of states. Considering there are about 300 million of us in the US today, anybody who thinks being (or having been) the governor of a state is the critical threshold for having an opinion about public issues or public figures, apparently believes that only 1 in a million of us are qualified to open our mouths, and the other 999,999 should keep their mouths shut and just go along with whatever the “big people” decide.

I don’t agree. And do you know why?

Because – in my arrogant American opinion – I believe we all have a right to speak out. We always have that right. We have the right to evaluate, and to judge, and even to strongly disagree with, anybody and everybody who doesn’t measure up to our own private yardsticks of respectability.

And I believe that – no matter where they were born, or how long they’ve lived here – anybody who believes different is NOT a very good American. Because they don’t understand — or RESPECT — this very basic American idea of equality.

Sarah Palin should not be the Vice President because she is not qualified to be President of the United States. Not in a safe time, and certainly not in this dangerous time.

She simply isn’t.

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