"We elected you, and we can diselect you." —
Member of Chicago Grammar School Club to
President of the Club (me, mid-1950s)
“And this took place in the United States, a
culture that educates its children against
blind obedience.” — Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt
on Milgram obedience experiments, in:
The Biology of Behavior(1970: p. 448; ch. 18)
Part of the lore of US warfare in Iraq is that the neoCons et al. who devised it didn't plan much for the aftermath in part because they firmly believed that the default setting — the universal ideal — for human government is what we in the US vaguely call "democracy." Get rid of oppressors like Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, and voilà! soon, very soon the society is moving toward becoming Denmark or even the greatness of America. Similarly for the disintegration of the USSR and Warsaw Pact — and, for a while, it indeed did look like a number of countries would “have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people” might actually expand.
That Big Idea didn't hold up well, which did not surprise those who studied the development of actually-existing societies we call, still very loosely, democratic. That's mostly because the range of what we (loosely) call "democracy" does develop and has social and economic and cultural roots, roots that may not go down as deep as we believe — but it needs those roots.
I'm not going to deal much with Big Ideas, though there is an idea here: by age 20 I knew that democracy is far from natural and the general culture does not do a good job teaching it.
Back in high school Civics — and in grammar school before that — back in a time and place where one had to pass an exam on the US and State Constitutions and governments to get a grammar school or high school diploma — in Chicago in the mid-1950s, Mr. James Connelly taught us in Civics that the United States was a federal republic, where sovereignty rested in the People, who established a constitution giving authority to a government of elected and appointed officials, officials who then ran the government but served the People. That was our official ideology, our small "r" republican doctrine, and I believed it and figured most Americans believed ... except —
Except there was that memory from back with my grammar school club and the doctrinally ambiguous challenge to me, personally, "We elected you, and we can diselect you." Okay, "potestas in populo, auctoritas in senatu" in a formula I'd later learn from Hannah Arendt and have driven home in street demonstrations: as Mr. Connelly said, the People always retained sovereign power, from which they conferred authority which they could take back. Except that my grammar-school classmate had questioned my authority precisely because it had been given to me by him and the other members of the club. The very limited authority of club officers was something he understood and figuratively owned and ... therefore, it seemed didn't see it as very binding.
Weird. We were taught and told and, well, indoctrinated that legitimate authority came from the People. The kid back in high school accepted — willingly and perhaps too eagerly — the authority of parents and teachers and others he had no say about, but resisted even highly limited peer authority over himself that he himself had granted.
The old “consent of the governed” bit wasn’t working out, and my fellow American youngster preferred authority over him to be built into the system and pretty much based in age and status and other criteria beyond his control. I saw that, felt it a bit as disrespect, and then did what most of us most of the time do when dealing with contradictions and what I much later learned to call cognitive dissonance: I mostly ignored it and moved on.
Mostly, but the experience stuck, and moving on included high school and college fraternities where I served a term as secretary of each and used the office to rewrite portions of our constitutions and make sure the guys debated the matter and voted on it. Get them to "buy in" as we would later say by exercising their power over our organizing documents, acknolwedge the authority and feel the worth of the group by participating in governing the group.
My college fraternity chapter in the 1960s, though, offered additional opportunities. At least back then, and on our campus, pledges lived in the house, which offered ... well, some pretty obvious opportunities. Our pledge-training (sic) policy was laisse-faire through the class of 1965: laisse-faire combined with occasional strong punishments for screwing up (“PT,” “sweat sessions”). The class of ’65 had problems, and it became clear we, the fraternithy Chapter, were doing things wrong.
So a few of us checked out how parts of the military handled training, and in my course work I was also studying some relevant anthropology. We went over to a system of “little things”: rules for minor behaviors, none of which individually worth rebelling against but all of which together were practice in accepting the Chapter’s authority.
Usually it worked, and in one case that impressed me, with a guy in the class of ’66 I’ll call Terry.
Now, a couple of upperclassmen in the chapter were outright geniuses. Terry wasn’t, but he was brilliant, going on to Harvard Law after graduation and not long after that doing some pro bono work that established some important law. Me? Well, an eminent Medievalist, after a couple or more gin and tonics once corrected some self-deprecating remark I made with, more or less, “No, Rich; you’re bright. Not brilliant, but bright” — and that’s about right. I was also a house officer when Terry pledged, and he kind of almost sort of respected my intelligence. He was smarter than I was or am — and as ... let’s say as firm in his opinions as I — but I had more experience; and as ambiguous as we arranged for pledges to feel about their status, he could figure out I outranked him. And the one time he screwed up (under the rules we’d set up), I was the one who quietly, privately, but in some detail, clarified for him that he was less clever and generally estimable than he thought. He was furious while being chewed out, but he submitted to it.
We became friends, and one night after he initiated, and we were talking in my room, I said I really had to get to sleep and said good night, and he responded, “Good night, Mr. Erlich” — and then proceeded to pound his fists into the walls, while I said, “We got you! We got into your head!”
As we had: I was a house officer, and when Terry was a pledge he called me to my face “Mr. Erlich” and threw in the occasional “sir.” (We hadstudied the military and some ideas on child-rearing of the traditional, though non-abusive, sort.)
Little rules, fairly easy to remember, very easy to obey, none worthy of rebellion — but often just there, frequently, calling for obedience and functioning to instill, figurative drop by figurative drop, some acceptance of the authority of the chapter.
I helped set up the program, but with a condition for my participation, one necessary for my integrity as someone who had issues with authority, even when I was in authority.
Between the end of Informal Initiation (“Hell Week”) and formal, ritualistic initiation, the guys undergoing initiation cleaned themselves up and then had this especially liminal period — I saidwe’d looked at some anthropology — marked by time alone in a quiet room, sitting for their Pledge Test. The test covered the usual quasi-useful history of the fraternity and such, but had one and only one question they had to get right, and keep taking the damn test until (sometimes with coaching) they did get. I had insisted that they answer the question, “What is the rationale for the pledge rules such as?”, and here some were listed.
To initiate they had to figure out that many of the rules were arbitrary and intentionally so. If they studied during study hours that was in part because we told them to study, but also in part common sense. If they ordinarily used the back door to the house and the back stairs — that was onlybecause we told them to do so.
Part of the goal with a fraternity (beside and along with more serious partying) is to control to a fair extent where we lived: at least being able to paint a room the color we wanted and set rules for behavior. For that we needed pledges to go from being trained to accept authority of those above them in a hierarchy to active brothers — full citizens, so to speak — who would accept consciously the authority of the constituted group as group, and of peers they’d elected. We needed them to sit in a circle of approximate equals as a chapter and accept the authority of rules they’d help make.
And there was nothing inevitable or all that natural about the process, and it didn’t always work even for a small fraternity chapter, with well-schooled if not necessarily educated guys, who lived in a Republic with an official policy of popular government and official democratic ideals and vocabulary.
Note the official. About the time Terry was learning to call me “Mr.” and throw in the occasional “sir,” Stanley Milgram was conducting his problematic experiments on and demonstrating how easy it is to get obedience where there’s mystique, in the Milgram case the mystique of “Science” and an authoritarian acceptance of rank. And Milgram et al. did that even “in the United States, a culture” far less than Austrian Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt thought “that educates its children against blind obedience.” We are a culture that trainsmany in obedience, to those with real power over us — as in the ability to help or hurt us — but also to those with the right mystique.
Fraternity chapters are short on mystique. And the moral here, if you’re still with me, is that one of the obstacles to achieving democratic-republican ideals is that (statistically) normal humans are like that kid in my grammar school club with little respect for authority he understood and had granted — even if all too willing to obey people just there, over him in a hierarchy over which he has no power. N = 1, proves very little, and not more with N = 75 or so for my fraternity chapter over a couple of years; but these small experiences were enough to get me accept the possibility that even Americans really aren’t that big on democracy or republicanism but are susceptible to confident fanatics like the Taliban, or “strong-men” like Saddam Hussein or authoritative bullies like Donald Trump, even when those strong-men/bullies have only the most limited charisma.
We need more teaching of Civics and teachers like Mr. Connelly. And we need more parents and teachers and administrators and coachesand other older folk more often stepping back and letting young people function in organizations of the kids, by the kids, and for the kids — even when the kids may seriously mess up. We need to provide training starting very young in choosing which authority and authorities to accept, and to prefer authority based in the ideal of republics with liberal-democratic aspirations.