The mystery of the gray government

The secret of power is that power and responsibility are the same thing.

Unless you have the Ring of Fnargl, the only way to be powerful is to have followers—jarls, voters, henchmen, employees, “unique visitors,” imperial stormtroopers, etc.—who respect you and ascribe some implicit trust to your decisions.

To convince people to follow you is to convince them that you’re a responsible leader. And by far the easiest way to convince people that you’re responsible is to actually be responsible. This may have something to do with 5 million years of evolution as a party-gang species. Humans are quite good at detecting insincerity in each other.

The result is that everyone in any position of importance claims to be sincere and responsible. And almost all of them genuinely believe they are. Acting is hard. Fooling yourself is easy. At least this is my experience.

What I find so interesting is that almost everyone on Planet Earth disagrees with this analysis. Or at least the ones who live in 2007 and speak English do. “Power” simply does not mean the same thing as “responsibility” in the modern English language.

For example, what do we make of someone who describes herself as a “responsible journalist” whose mission is to “speak truth to power”? Can she succeed just by speaking to herself, like a bag lady? It would certainly save on newsprint.

I think what she means by “power” is actually what I’d call corruption, that is, irresponsibility masked by the pretense of responsibility. I certainly find it hard to imagine any ethical system in which exposing corruption is anything but laudable.

But this leaves us with another problem, which is Acton’s famous line. “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Presumably there is something to this quote, because people have been quoting it nonstop for the last century.

Unfortunately, if we insert the journalist’s definition of “power” into Acton’s quote, it becomes a nonsensical tautology. It’s certainly true that absolute corruption corrupts absolutely. But it does not strike me as noteworthy.

So suppose we try the other definition. “Responsibility tends to corrupt…”

I’m not sure whether or not this is what Acton meant. And even if it was what Acton meant, it doesn’t make him right. But it’s surely an interesting proposition. If responsibility tended to corrupt, how would it do so?

As I said, the best way to gain others’ trust is and always will be genuine, sincere responsibility. But gaining trust is not the same thing as keeping it. The latter is easier. Presumably it tolerates a higher level of self-delusion, and perhaps some genuine insincerity may creep in. (Although, of course, it is impossible for us to know what Joe Schmoe down the street is thinking, let alone Stalin or Hitler.)

It’s also important to note that a lot of what appears to be corruption is nothing of the kind. One, in many government systems, such as Congress, a certain level of graft (e.g., “campaign contributions”) is necessary to get anything done. Abjuring such graft is irresponsible, because the result will be total ineffectiveness. Two, not in the West but in many foreign countries, graft flourishes as a consequence of responsibility within extended family and/or tribal groups, taking precedence over the Western governmental structures that donors prefer to see.

But I do believe that responsibility corrupts. However, I would not recommend agreeing with this statement lightly.

Most of what you know about the world probably originated, in one way or another, with responsible journalists (or, worse, responsible historians). If these people are in any way corrupt (and there are many, many ways in which they could be corrupt), checking their work yourself is an enormous and daunting task (trust me on this).

And you might even come to the same conclusion as me, which frankly is a little too Philip K. Dick for my taste. Hopefully it is a little too Philip K. Dick for your taste, as well.

So let’s suspend the Acton for now, and stick with the equation of responsibility and power. As the Acton example demonstrates, this equation—precisely because it runs against the grain of the way we use these words in English—is a very good way of turning old chestnuts into odd and provocative thoughts. And if you’re not interested in odd and provocative thoughts, you’ve definitely clicked on the wrong URL.

Another example is a bumper sticker I saw the other day. It’s not a rare one—you may have seen the same sticker yourself. It says, “I love my country, but I fear my government.”

I find this a fascinating message, because I think you could sell the same sticker (if not with the same graphic design) in San Francisco and in Lubbock County, Texas. Given that I saw it on a New Beetle in one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in SF (Cole Valley), however, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to deconstruct it here.

I don’t think the Beetle’s owner was thinking of the Environmental Protection Agency when she put that sticker on her car. Nor was she thinking of the State Department, the Supreme Court, the Fed, or probably even these days the CIA.

In fact, CIA (no one in Washington uses the article—much as the same road is “the 101” in LA and “101” up here; perhaps it is a faint Russian influence) is a fascinating example. When, exactly, did the Agency and the New York Times become best buddies? Today, you are no more likely to find the Times or the Post criticizing CIA than criticizing State, EPA, etc. It would be interesting to spend some quality time with Lexis-Nexis and see when this handover happened. Perhaps there was a secret surrender ceremony, or something.

I think the US is best interpreted as one country with two governments. We can call these the “red government” and the “blue government.” Basically, as a very rough approximation, the red government is the military and the blue government is everything else.

(Each house of Congress also has parallel red and blue committee systems. And there are also some departments, such as the White House, that can switch colors as the result of elections. But mainly when I talk about “government” I mean the permanent government. It is very difficult for political officials to exercise much direction over career civil servants.)

I don’t know that any such polls have been taken—it would probably be considered some sort of high-tech blasphemy—but I kind of suspect that these colors correspond to the political affiliation of the employees. That is, the military probably employs more Republicans than Democrats, and the other agencies more Democrats than Republicans—just a guess.

But in any case, what I find interesting about the woman who bought this bumper sticker and put it on her Beetle is that, for her, “the government” means the red government. That is, it means the enemy of the blue government, of which she is presumably a supporter. (You might think she was a libertarian, and who knows, perhaps she (or he) is—but Google did find this same sticker at a 100% progressive vendor.)

This is absolutely fascinating. Because for her, the blue government does not exist—as such. It is simply a large number of responsible people doing responsible things. Their work, in fact, is being hindered by the government (that is, the red government), a mighty power which literally dominates the planet. And which is presumably quite corrupt, in the Actonian sense.

In fact, I’m sure our Beetle owner could list quite a few ways in which the red government is irresponsible and is abusing its power. Nor would it strike her as a contradiction that, while I’m sure she is a passionate believer in democracy, she is effectively supporting an unelected government over an elected one. She might well believe that the current occupant of the White House was not legally elected, and if she didn’t she would consider his election an outrage, the product of trickery, bribery and lies. To a Catholic, the election of a false pope does not discredit the Papacy—it renders reform imperative.

Now imagine the same sticker on the back of an F150 in Lubbock, Texas. Obviously, it means something entirely different. But our truck-driving Texan is actually going through a set of thought processes that are very similar—to him, the military is not “the gummint,” it is America. To him the blue government is the government, and it is screwing up everything. And he, too, can present a very compelling list of irresponsibilities.

Obviously, since I live in San Francisco, my instinct is to side with the Lubbockite. Probably if I lived in Lubbock it would go the other way. All this means is that I’m a misanthrope. It does not provide you with any information about the correctness of either side.

But the lesson I take from this situation is that it’s very much in the interest of any powerful person to have the same relationship to his jarls, etc., that EPA has to the Beetle driver, or that DoD has to the Ford driver. Once people even start to see you as powerful, rather than responsible, a crack has appeared in your armor. You have enemies. And who wants enemies?

And suppose there is a third government, which both sides see as responsible, not powerful? Could we call it the gray government? I think this would be a very appropriate name. Perhaps we’ll investigate this a little further.