I was born with a healthy distaste for authority. Or an unhealthy one, if you think about the white hairs I must have given my elementary school teacher. To my poor parents it just seemed as though I never outgrew the “Why?” stage. On the contrary, I overgrew the “Why?” with other considerations like “Taking in account that this economic model always causes issues, why do you think it will work?” Or “Yes, but why would you think that, given the movement’s philosophical underpinnings?” Or a thousand other questions that somehow always managed to come up when they told me to clean my room or do the dishes.
(And you should not fear I went unpunished. You see, I eventually had kids. Yesterday night we had a philosophical discussion with the younger boy, in which most philosophers of the 20th century and not a few of the 18th were invoked, as well as half a dozen physicists, on the subject of “why you really need to buy another suit. This one has been packed wrong a dozen times for the robotics competitions, and it looks gross.” The gist of his argument? He likes the suit. What Hume and Locke have to do with this, much less Niels Bohr is something that evades my poor understanding. My hope is that eventually at least one of them will have children. And they’ll be exactly like them.)
When I came to the States I discovered that among the many posters that littered teachers’ and counselors’ offices, there was always one that said “Lead, Follow, or Get Out Of The Way.” There might also be another, which would not be considered incredibly politically incorrect, and it said “The problem with this tribe is too many chiefs, not enough Indians.”
Needless to say I absorbed all this, as I absorbed other bits of seventies culture, by reading it, chuckling and forgetting it. (Okay, bell bottoms didn’t make me chuckle, they made me fall on the floor laughing. Who knew they’d be revived? But you know what they say about fashion, the first time is comedy, the second is tragedy.)
It wasn’t till much later that I came to think “What is wrong with getting out of the way? WHY should I either lead or follow? Aren’t these people able to find their own path and form their own followers if they want that?”
And much later, I realized that, in politically incorrect terms, Americans as a tribe ARE a nation of chiefs and not enough Indians. But then the question becomes – what are ENOUGH Indians? Why are Indians needed anyway? (And please take this in seventies parlance. No, I’m not talking about inhabitants of India or Pakistan. Geesh.)
This occurred to me yesterday when I was writing my piece. It might not be quite obvious to other people who have never lived out of the country, but we are, as a rule, an unusual people.
Take nine eleven. Or even more so, take the great power failure in NYC and most of the Eastern regions in… was it 2003? With electrical down and transport down, most large cities in the world would have broken down in total chaos. Instead people walked home. On nine eleven, common citizens pitched in to help strangers. Some died for their pains.
Yes, there was also Katrina, and other pockets of what I would call “Learned helplessness” – though a lot of it is still exaggerated by our press.
But beyond the disasters and the horrible situations, Americans are different in every day life. Look, guys, despite all the years of everyone telling us we should leave things to the experts, you can go out on any spring day and see normal citizens fixing and building their houses practically from scratch. You can still find people repairing their own cars, despite the newfangled computers and stuff. And let any issue appear, you see common citizens noodling over it.
You won’t know how rare this is, unless you’ve lived abroad, particularly in a place not in the anglosphere. Reasons of class, reasons of expertise, reasons of learned helplessness, keep ordinary citizens waiting for the “authorities” and the “experts.”
This is the companion piece to my piece yesterday. As RES pointed out in the comments “What I have I keep,” can also mean “What I have I defend and maintain.” In the last Pratchett book to reference that motto, that is exactly what it means.
And in America, as long as each of us believes we own ourselves, as long as each of us – or a significant majority of us – believes it is right to keep what we have, what the goofy critters at the top do doesn’t matter.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going into politics, because what’s the point? But I’ve seen the way a government can bring a country to its knees. Portugal in the seventies, for instance. And in some things for which we do need the jokers, like common defense, we can – heaven help us – die from their goofiness.
BUT in general, the American pattern is “When people at the top screw up, go around them. Find another way.”
Again, the perfect example of this is publishing. It had been dysfunctional for several decades, but when it became lethally so, at a level that affected not only writers but readers who couldn’t find anything to read… People found another way. Mostly techy people did, though I’ll note self-published by the old means was well on its way up long before Amazon.
They went around. The people at the top still haven’t recovered, and are still screaming “Too many chiefs, too many chiefs.”
I submit to you that at another point in the process, this is happening with bureaucracy and government too. And it will happen with medicine, if it’s centralized to such a point it becomes utterly dysfunctional. Medical engineering will come along and make medicine unimportant and quaint.
Part of this is what the tech guys have been up to, of course – the technologies that allow the individual power they’ve never had before.
But it starts before that, in the American psyche, with the strange idea of a government created and authorized by the people.
Lead or follow? Oh, please. I’ll get out of the way and take care of me and mine in this little pocket over here. You zanies do whatever you think you should. After all, you’re free citizens.
And being free citizens means taking your own path, and recognizing no authority greater than your own conscience. It means finding solutions around all the “leaders” who are trying to direct you. It means asking “WHY?” (Though I submit when it comes to ratty winter weight blue suits you should leave Hume and Locke alone already.)
Being free citizens means ascribing to yourself the privileges and responsibilities of noblemen in former ages. “This much is mine, and this much I’ll care for and maintain and defend.” And not just possessions, but friends and neighbors (yes, even the annoying ones with the weird political signs) and yeah, a few genuinely helpless creatures, like orphan kittens. If it’s yours, you look after it.
No wonder regency romances, fantasy and even some of the science fiction that makes it in America is all about Lords and Ladies. We are a nation of Lords and Ladies with very very few peasants.
And that is what I like about us. When we’re all Lords and Ladies, no one gets to lord it over us. Oh, they might think they do, but no such luck. We are everyman a nobleman. Or an ungovernable rabble, if you prefer. Either is fine by me.
So, carry on, milords, miladies. What is yours, you keep. Keep it well.