Thursday, August 9, 2018

"What If I Don't?": Declaring a Major, Authority, and a Trumpian Turning Point

To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, you have one kind of 
authority, the sort relevant for politics, 
when you can tell or order people to do something 
and they do it, without your needing 
to persuade them or threaten them. — Rich Erlich

My first lesson in "Question Authority!" was asking a real question about changing a college major.
             I had entered the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) in Specialized Chemistry, with the goal of becoming a biochemist, and one with a degree from a major institution in the field. The motivation for my decision on a major was in part my name: "Erlich" is the Yiddish variation on "Ehrlich," and I'd grown up on biopics about the famous chemists (in part) Paul Ehrlich, Marie Curie, and Louis Pasteur. 
It wasn't as bad as the lies the movies told about the Indian Wars — which I learned from the US Army had been a time of crime and disgrace for the US Army — but the movies had misled me about the life of a chemist. In the 20thcentury, chemistry was largely physics and math, and although I did well in school in both, I really preferred words. 
In any event, I'd taken part in a quiet mini-revolt by Specialized Chemistry students who said we'd do like the Chemical Engineering students and take five years to graduate if we had to, but while we were at a major university, we'd try to pick up some more general liberal education, beyond the many required courses in Specialized Chem.
(Eat your hearts out young-folk: Tuition and fees were something like $300 a year or maybe a semester for us — a service charge, actually — with the rest of the cost paid by the generous People of the State of Illinois. [Trust me, I paid them back: with an MA from Cornell, I worked for five years for the U of IL as a teaching fellow, teaching assistant, and "merit instructor" — What did the "merit" mean? About six grand a year less than a real instructor — and made enough to live pretty well on, with some grey-market extra … "emoluments," but still bupkes.)
They later took a 180-degree turn on the matter, but in the early 1960s, the U of I Chem Department didn't want incipient bio-chemists taking biology courses, and my genius adviser — self-taught in literature even as he'd learned to play the cello — couldn't see why I'd need courses in English, my native language. Like, I'd eventually get some literature in my German courses, and I could read on my own … eventually. He well understood I'd have no free time as an undergrad in Specialized Chem.
Anyway, the next semester I took Microbiology 101, the most totally irrelevant history course I could find — "Well we have one that starts in the Neolithic — Paleolithic? — and gets up to Alexander the Great" — and a course known as just "Fiction." And I ended up with an English major and a split minor of Microbiology/History. (The "credentials analyst" said "We've never had one of thosebefore," and kind of assigned me my minor.)

The story here is how I got there.

I liked registering as a Chem major. Student folklore had it that Chem majors had our cards put through the computer right after varsity jocks, and I had pretty much always gotten the courses, sections, and times I wanted. I didn't intend to give that up. Soooo … so when I went into the office of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to find out about such things, they told me, "You have to file the paper-work to switch from Chemistry into English." And I asked a crucial question: "What if I don't?"
The answer was that they didn't know since no one hadn't before, or at least that they knew of. They told me to come back "later" and when I asked "When?" they told me just not near the beginning of the semester since they were always swamped with work for the first six weeks or so. So, a couple or three years later, when I was ready to graduate, I waited a while into the semester and went in and declared myself an English Major. And talked with the Credentials Analyst — one of the thousands of little old ladies who actually run many non-military offices — and she officially recognized me as an English Major, with a Microbiology/History minor.
And I learned a crucial lesson for moving farther into the 1960s and beyond, "When someone tells you you must do something, it's often a good idea to ask, "What [will you (try to) do to me] if I don't?"

I later learned from my reading Hannah Arendt and such that Authority is giving an order that people follow, without asking "And what if I don't" and without the authority-figure needing to make any threats. I was prepared for that idea a few years earlier when a couple new-initiate brothers in my fraternity asked me, "What would you have done if you gave us pledges an order and we hadn't obeyed?" And I paused and seemed to think for a moment and replied, "Why … why, that never occurred to me." And then I laughed and told them I was amazed when anyone did what I told them to. And I suggested that they go over to the ROTC unit and watch the regular Army officer and noncoms and (for what not to do) take a glance or two at the more asshole-ish cadet officers. The military pros never raised their voices, were always polite — and gave quiet orders at least giving the impression that it never occurred to them that they wouldn't be obeyed.
And after a couple of asshole moves of my own as a new initiate, I had taken care to keep my orders few and reasonable (with good projection but without "raising my voice") — and when I ordered something unusual and really unpleasant (bailing out our sunken patio and basement dining area during a cloud-burst in the middle of the night, say) I knew to lead the work.

Authority is better than tyranny — much better — and free people must often Question Authority (and listen to hear if there's an answer). Whenever there's a "you must," there must always be the potential for "And what if I don't?"

Which brings me to Donald Trump and these our unfortunate days of much misplaced mistrust of institutions and celebrations of "Bad Boys" and "Wild and Crazy" Gals, in which "macho" can be used as a compliment, where "to disrupt" as a generalized verb is used as a Good Thing, whatever disrupted, and a big part of popular culture teaches that following rules and conventions is for wimps. And where a fair number of Americans accept Donald Trump as a capital "L" Leader, opposed by a Deep State and media who are Enemies of the People, and whose main political opponent should be locked up.
            And who features in photo-ops a portrait behind him of Andrew Jackson. 
            Now I certainly prefer Andrew Jackson to Andrew Johnson (also relevant here) and a lot of politicians, but part of Jackson's legend is the attributed line, that Chief Justice "John Marshall has made his decision" and the U.S. Supreme Court along with him; "now let him enforce it!" And in the folklore that came down to me, though not in historical fact, the association of this line with Jackson as prime mover of "The Indian Removal Act" and "the Trail of Tears." That last part is highly historical and adds weight, in his legend, to Andy Jackson as good ol' populist, keeping his promises to his constituents, whatever the price and pain to other people: probably misapplying a phrase from Rudyard Kipling, the suffering of Other, "lesser breeds without the law."

            So, put the case that Robert Mueller has a Federal grand jury subpoena Trump to testify in a case of great importance to the Constitution and the Republic, and the subpoena controversy gets fought out in the courts pretty quickly up to the Supreme Court of the United States. And said Supreme Court tells Mr. Trump he must testify.
            And if his response is "What if I don't?"
            The first and obvious answer is "There will be a Constitutional Crisis." And if Trump responds that he was elected to shake things up, to by-pass the Deep State and its surface bureaucracy and the mare's nest of laws and regulations and customs that block the will of The People, his people? If he responds that he was elected precisely because he was a manly man like Old Hickory, who wins, in spite of the rules of a game rigged against him? That he is one warlock who will hunt the hunters (assuming that Trump knows what a warlock is and is capable of making a joke about a witch hunt).
            Or consider the possibility that Trump just fires Mueller and much of the Justice Department and pardons everyone in the Trumpian orbit charged with crime, including himself? Who will demand that the President respect the Rule of Law, and how many are willing — in Congress to start with — to offer a vigorous response to a Trumpian semi-rhetorical question, "And what if I just {say 'Screw You All!' and} don't?"

            One major reassurance that the American Republic isn't going the way of the Weimar has been that Trump et al. lack a private militia like Hitler's SA (or SS — though that gets complicated). The Tiki-Torch Trolls from Charlottesville and elsewhere don't seem like a major threat, and if they go up against some militarized police department or National Guard unit, they may find themselves bringing AR-15s to a drone fight. Okay, but the latest incarnation of Blackwater and other mercenary firms are around and ready for work, and in a USA that's well-stocked with firearms and smart phones, "flash mob" could take on dangerous meanings.
            As suggested by a caller to the NPR show 1A, it would be a good idea to gets statistics on support for Donald Trump in the various officer corps of the US military, and among our now all-volunteer rank-and-file. It's even more imperative, I think, to get statistics on the extent and depth of support for Mr. Trump among gun owners and, as a subset, gun owners who feel their primary loyalty is to Trump personally and the (White, Christian, straight, manly) American nation he is making great again, and not to some abstract American Republic and un-studied Constitution.
            The American Left and its allies talk a good game of questioning authority, intervening in discourses, disrupting business, and "Revolution Now!" If Trump asks, "What if I don't?" in obeying basic decencies and the rule of law, he may get strong enough support from the Right to get away with it — possibly through two terms or longer.
            Trump said, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters." And that may be the case, especially if the shooting victim is Black or Muslim or an Enemy of the People. Certainly, he might offer a whole series of "What if I don't?" responses to demands upon him to obey or enforce the law, or to fulfil a number of boring, wimpy, conventions of everyday decency. 
           And to that question, our Leader and President for Life — or until he gets thoroughly bored — may get get no effective answer.

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