Excerpt: ‘Don’t Vote It Just Encourages the Bastards,’ By P.J. O’Rourke

Oct.
22, 2010 —

 

In
P.J. O’Rourke’s new book, “Don’t Vote — It Just Encourages the Bastards,
” the satirist takes a look at national politics through the venerable
lens of a teenage party game to find an unsettling, and humorous, side of the
political machine.

************************************************************************

When
I first began to think about politics — when mastodons and Nixon roamed the
earth — I was obsessed with freedom. I had a messy idea of freedom at the
time, but I had the tidy idea that freedom was the central issue of politics.

I
loved politics. Many young people do — kids can spot a means of gain without
merit. (This may be the reason professional politicians retain a certain
youthful zest; Strom Thurmond was the boyo right down to his last senile
moment.) I was wrong about the lovable nature of politics, and even at
twenty-three I probably suspected I was wrong. But I was sure I was right about
the preeminent place of freedom in a political system.

Freedom
is a personal ideal. Because politics is an arrangement among persons, we can plausibly
assume that freedom is a political ideal. Our favorite political idealists
think so. They’ve been unanimous on the subject since Jean-Jacques Rousseau
convinced polite society that human bondage was in bad taste and John Locke
showed the divine right of kings to be a royal pain.

The
signers of the Declaration of Independence declared us to be residents of
“Free and Independent States.” John Adams demanded, “Let me have
a country, and that a free country.” Tom Paine warned that “Freedom
hath been hunted round the globe.” And he exhorted us to “receive the
fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” Calling America an
asylum may have been a poor choice of words, or not. Thomas Jefferson, in his
first inaugural address, preached “Freedom of religion; freedom of the
press, and freedom of person.” Jefferson was quite free with the person of
Sally Hemings. And a dinner toast from Revolutionary War general John Stark
bestowed upon New Hampshire a license plate motto that must puzzle advocates of
highway safety: “Live Free or Die.”

With
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations as a useful gauge of what we think we think, we
find that Emerson poetized, “For what avail the plow or sail, or land or
life, if freedom fail?” Hegel weighed in, “The history of the world
is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” As
unlikely a character as the crackpot Nietzsche had something to say:
“Liberal institutions straightway cease from being liberal the moment they
are soundly established: once this is attained no more grievous and more
thorough enemies of freedom exist than liberal institutions.” The UN
Commission on Human Rights comes to mind.

We
can survey the arts, where mankind is most blatant in its truths, and find
artists taking the broadest liberties. (They are especially free with the use
of fate as a plot device.) We can peruse philosophy, where mankind is less
truthful, and not hear freedom denied by anything except free thinking.
Theology makes sporadic arguments against free will, with which the devout are
freely willing to concur. Science is deterministic and its special needs
stepsister social science is more so. But people are free to pick and choose
among the determinations of science until they find something they like. I give
you Al Gore and you can have him. Perhaps there are scientists who make a sound
case for the inevitabilities of biology and such. But we don’t know what these
geniuses are talking about and very likely neither do they. For example, the
important biologist Richard Dawkins has written a book, The God Delusion, in
which he uses predestinarian atheism to argue that Richard Dawkins is the
closest thing to a superior being in the known universe.

The
theoretical (as opposed to practical) enemies of freedom are feeble opponents.
And we are all but overrun by theoretical allies in freedom’s cause. We’ve got
collaborators in the fight for freedom that we don’t even want. “The
proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains” is the penultimate
sentence of the Communist Manifesto. And a creepy echo of it can be heard in
the refrain of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Mao
announced, “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of
thought contend is the policy …” Half a million people died in those
ellipses.

If
we were to give out the proverbial “a word to the wise,” the
sagacity-testing utterance with which to provide the sages would be
“freedom.” In the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary the noun has
fifteen definitions and the adjective “free” has thirty-six. These
definitions, along with their usage citations, occupy 189¼ column inches of
small and smaller type.

Peter
Roget (1779-1869), of Roget’s Thesaurus, was a physician, a scientist, the
secretary of the Royal Society for more than twenty years, and an exhaustingly
systematic thinker. He designed his thesaurus (Greek for “treasury”)
as a reverse dictionary. Instead of listing words and giving their meanings, he
listed meanings and gave words for them. Under the heading “freedom”
there are more than four hundred entries in twenty-one categories. And
“freedom” is only one of the twenty-three headings in Roget’s
“Section I, General Intersocial Volition” of “Division II,
Intersocial Volition” of “Class Five, Volition.” It’s hard to
know whether or not to be thankful that Peter Roget’s obsessive-compulsive
disorder meds hadn’t been invented.

Among
the various types and kinds of general intersocial volition, about ten have
something to do with political freedom.

freedom
in the abstract

autonomy

enfranchisement

toleration

frankness

leisure

laxity

abandon

opportunity

privilege

 

Several
of these may seem beside the point. But “frank,” for instance, is
from the Old French franc, meaning free. We can be frank with the president of
the United States. We can honestly and openly say what we think to him. And
what we think of him. But in all our name-calling the name we call our
president that sticks is “Mr.” He’s not “Your Excellency”
or “Your Highness,” nor do we kowtow, genuflect, or curtsy to him.
Callisthenes, the great-nephew of Aristotle, plotted to kill Alexander the
Great rather than prostrate himself in the Persian manner to the conqueror of
the known world. It’s probably just as well that our current president forgoes
even a handshake with Fox News.

Then
there are the freedoms of leisure, laxity, and wild abandon. Anyone who thinks
these have nothing to do with democracy hasn’t met the demos. Also, it was not
so long ago, during the great political demonstrations of the 1960s, that I was
risking my neck — well, risking a conk on the head and a snootful of tear gas
– in the battle to create a utopian society where I could lie around all day,
utterly heedless and high as a kite.

Freedom,
of course, may be considered as an abstraction. I was young enough to be highly
abstracted — not to say stoned — when I began to think about freedom. But I
wasn’t old enough to think. Therefore I can tell you nothing about my abstract
thinking on the subject. And so can’t a lot of other people, because there are
languages in which the word “freedom” doesn’t exist. (Not surprising
if you think about some of the places languages are spoken.) Richard Pipes,
emeritus professor of Russian history at Harvard, who is fluent in a number of
tongues himself, makes this point in his book Property and Freedom (a
perspicacious analysis of what the title says).

Professor
Pipes cites the work of M. I. Finley, preeminent historian of classical
antiquity (and, incidentally, a Marxist, something Richard Pipes is the
opposite of ). Finley wrote, “It is impossible to translate the word
‘freedom,’ eleutheris in Greek, libertas in Latin, or ‘free man,’ into any
ancient Near Eastern language, including Hebrew, or into any Far Eastern
language either, for that matter.” Indeed, when the Japanese first encountered
Western notions they were hard put to translate “freedom” and ended
up using the word jiyu, which means something like “getting jiggy with
it.”

Freedom
and liberty themselves don’t have quite the same meaning. “Free” is
derived from the Indo-European root pri, to love. The p becomes f in Germanic
languages, thus fri in Old German and freo in Old English. The original sense
of the adjective was “dear,” and it was used to describe those
members of a household who had a kinship relation to the master of the house.
Since at least the reign of King Alfred the Great, ruled 871-899, the primary
definition of “free” has been “not in bondage.” You’re free
because … Who loves ya, Baby?

Liberty
is probably the better word;(1) its source is in the Indo-European leudh,
“to mount up, grow.” Hence Latin for children, liberi, and German for
populace, Leute. We the people make leudh into eleutheris and libertas.

Yet,
the first definition of “liberty” in English is, once again,
“exemption or release from bondage.” Whatever we mean by our abstract
statements about freedom and liberty, the most meaningful thing we’re stating
is that mankind has a sickening history of slavery.

Enfranchisement
is the lively, fortunate, and honorable freedom, for the sake of which our
political ancestors pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred
honor. Nothing concerning the goal of enfranchisement is ignoble except its
attainment. Among those who choose the congressmen, senators, and presidents of
the United States we now include people who are not considered mature and
responsible enough to have a beer. (If it’s any comfort, we should remind
ourselves of the purpose of voting. We don’t vote to elect great persons to
office. They’re not that great. We vote to throw the bastards out.)

Toleration
is the best comfort of a free life for most people most of the time, especially
if they experience as well as practice it. But tolerance is of minor interest
to politics. Politics aspires to a big, positive role in things. And the role
of politics in toleration is small except in the usually negative actions of
keeping the peace. Yet it was two consummate American politicians who supplied
us with a model for the universal formulation of tolerance: “Mind your own
business and keep your hands to yourself.” These may be rightly called the
Bill and Hillary Clinton Rules. Hillary, mind your own business. Bill, keep
your hands to yourself.

The
ontological freedom known as autonomy isn’t part of practical politics, it’s
all of practical politics — imposing my will and thwarting yours. If the
actions of mankind and the events of history turn out to have been foreordained
it will be a good joke on politics. This leaves us with the nub or butt end of
politicking: privilege and opportunity. Ignore everything politicians say about
opportunity. They’re lying. When politicians tout “opportunity”
either they are trying to help voters disguise an extortion as a gift or they
are the groom of government complimenting the bride of private property while
in bed with the socialist maid of honor. And ignore all of politicians’
sniffing at and scorn for privilege. Privilege and opportunity are the names
for rights — opportunity being rights you’d like to get and privilege being
rights you’d like someone else to surrender. A politician doesn’t ask if he may
have the privilege of a dance; he says he has a right to it.

*
* *

Our
gassing about our rights is almost equal to our gassing about our freedoms when
we’re bent over and puffed full of air concerning our form of government. We’re
inordinately proud of the Bill of Rights. But it’s an odd document.

The
First and Sixth Amendments are straightforward enough, reassuring us that we
may pray (OMG!), Twitter, kvetch, and be tried in the same court as O. J.
Simpson. And the Fifth Amendment says that when we screw up big time we don’t
have to give our version — like anybody’s going to believe us. But the Second
Amendment is woefully confusing. (Not that it confuses me about gun ownership,
in case you were considering a mugging to get my Jitterbug mobile phone.) The
principal right that the Second Amendment seems to guarantee is the right to be
a soldier. To judge by our various episodes of national conscription — Civil
War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam — this is a right we sometimes
have to force people to enjoy.

According
to the Third Amendment the Pentagon can’t just randomly send the U.S. Marines
to sleep on our fold-out couch. This is something that, as a home owner, you’d
think would be obvious. Although, in fairness, there are people elsewhere who
wish they had an amendment keeping the Marines out of their house.

The
Third Amendment and the Seventh Amendment (concerning jury appeals), are
undercut by weasel words: “but in a manner to be prescribed by law”
and “otherwise … than according to the rules of the common law.”
The Fourth Amendment (mandating warrants) and the Eighth Amendment (limiting
punishments) include strange pairs of modifiers — “unreasonable” and
“probable,” “cruel” and “unusual” — better
suited to a drunken description of my first marriage than to a sober writ of
law.

And
the message of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments is: You have other rights but you
have to guess what they are.

There
was opposition to the Bill of Rights. The modern mind expects it to have come
from slave owners. But this is too modern. Support for the first ten amendments
had little to do with dictionary definitions of freedom and liberty and a great
deal to do with qualms that old-line Revolutionary patriots — including Sam
Adams — had about the new federal government. Alexander Hamilton, who had
other qualms, made a case against the Bill of Rights in that supposed ur-text
of American freedoms The Federalist Papers, in number 84.

Hamilton
put forth various arguments opposing the addition of any bill of rights to the
U.S. Constitution. Some of the arguments were weak. Hamilton claimed that the
Constitution, as it was, affirmed and maintained the ancient protections of
individual liberty embodied in British common law. Maybe. But a less dangerous
and expensive way to retain British common law had been available in 1776.

Hamilton
claimed that previous, precedent-setting bills of rights, starting with the
Magna Carta, were merely bargains between a sovereign and his subjects about a
ruler’s prerogatives. Hamilton felt that no such sharp dealing and unseemly
horse trading was necessary in a social contract freely made among equals. But
if Nietzsche was right about what liberal institutions do once they’re
institutionalized — and there’s no evidence he wasn’t — then Hamilton was
wrong. And Hamilton believed the Constitution already included the most
important safeguards of freedom: establishment of habeas corpus, prohibition of
ex post facto laws, and a ban on titles of nobility. Hamilton was listing the
principal instruments in the tyranny tool chest of his era. He didn’t foresee
the future inventions of oppression such as ethnic cleansing, even though
ethnic cleansing of North America was well under way at the time the Federalist
essays were written.

But
Hamilton’s other objections to the Bill of Rights were prescient. Don’t give
the government ideas, he warned.

Why,
for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be
restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will
not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is
evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretense
for claiming that power. They might urge … the provision against restraining
the liberty of the press afforded a clear implication that a power to prescribe
proper regulations concerning it was intended to be vested in the national
government.

And
now we have not only the FCC’s naughty involvement in Janet Jackson’s wardrobe
malfunction but also the gross obscenities of binding and gagging displayed in
America’s campaign finance legislation.(2)

Hamilton
said that, in the matter of denying a right, “Who can give it any
definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?” Not
even God, if you note the various evasions practiced by believers since
Genesis. Hamilton said the true security of our freedom “must altogether
depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the
government.” Each of these can be rotten, and occasionally all of them
are. Such an occasion arose just seven years after the Bill of Rights was ratified.
The Sedition Act made it a federal crime to publish anything about Congress or
the president that would bring them into “contempt or disrepute.” In
other words, the Sedition Act made it a federal crime to publish anything about
Congress or the president.

Fortunately
the Bill of Rights is flawed in its treatment of only one type of rights –
opportunities. It doesn’t meddle with the other type — privileges. Perhaps
these two categories of rights should be known as “get-outa-here”
rights and “gimme” rights or, as they’re more usually called in
political theory, negative rights and positive rights. The Bill of Rights (and
“the idea of Freedom”) is concerned mostly with our liberty to say,
“I’ve got God, guns, and a big damn mouth, and if the jury finds me
guilty, the judge will pay my bail!” This is a negative right — our right
to be left alone, our freedom from interference, usually from government, but
also from our fellow citizens when they want us to sober up, quit yelling, put
the shotgun down, and go back into the house.

Politicians,
in their hearts, are always tepid supporters of get-outa-here rights. For one
thing, any and all legislators are being invited to leave. For another thing,
strict adherence to negative rights would leave little scope for legislating,
something legislators dearly love to do. Gimme rights are more politically
alluring. This is how we find ourselves tempted with positive rights to
education, housing, health care, a living wage, food relief, high-speed
Internet access, and all the kingdoms of the world, and all the glory of them.

Politicians
show no signs of even knowing the difference between negative and positive
rights. Blinded by the dazzle of anything that makes them popular, they
honestly may not be able to tell. But there’s evidence that a confusion of
negative and positive rights originally was presented to the public with malice
aforethought. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” appear
to be, at first glance, as natural, well matched, and tidy of composition as
the Norman Rockwell illustrations for them.

But
notice how the beggar, number 3, has been slipped in among the more respectable
members of the Freedom family. “Want what?” we ask ourselves.

Saying,
as Roosevelt did in his January 6, 1941, State of the Union address, that
“We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human
freedoms” and that one of these freedoms is “freedom from want”
was not an expression of generosity. Declarations of positive rights never are.
There were six million Jews in Europe who wanted nothing but a safe place to
go.

Politicians
are careless about promising positive rights and cynical about delivering them.
Positive rights themselves, in turn, are absurdly expandable.The government
gives me a right to get married. This shows I have a right to a good marriage,
otherwise why bother giving it to me? My marriage is made a lot better by my
children’s right to day care, so the brats aren’t in my face all day being
deprived of their right to a nurturing developmental environment. Every child
has the right to a happy childhood, so I have the right to happy children.
Richer children are happier. Give me some of Angelina Jolie’s.

The
expense of all this makes politicians glad. They get to do the spending. Even
negative rights aren’t free. They entail a military, a constabulary, a
judiciary, and a considerable expenditure of patience by our neighbors. But
positive rights require no end of money, and money is the least of their cost.
Every positive right means the transfer of goods and services from one group of
citizens to another. The first group of citizens loses those goods and
services, but all citizens lose the power that must be given to a political
authority to enforce the transfer. Perhaps such transfers could be made
voluntary. U.S. federal personal income tax receipts in 2008:
$1,426,000,000,000.

U.S.
charitable contributions in 2008: $307,700,000. Perhaps not.

When
rights consist of special privileges and material benefits, rights kill
freedom. Wrong rights are the source of political power. It’s not freedom but
power that is the central issue in politics. Only an idiot wouldn’t have seen
that. And I was one.

At
least I wasn’t alone. In the latter two-thirds of the twentieth century, most
of us who involved ourselves in democratic politics claimed that freedom was
what we were up to. We claimed it for more than fifty years, from the time of
our defeat in the Spanish civil war until the embarrassing moment when those
authoritarians Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led us to victory in the
cold war. Liberals, moderates, and even some conservatives considered the
sweeping positive rights created by a half century of social welfare programs
to be extensions of freedom, in the opportunity sense. People were being given
the opportunity to, you know, not starve to death and stuff.

This
wasn’t an evil way of looking at things. And not all the programs were bad. But
the electorate, the candidates, and we busybody pundits failed to properly
scrutinize social welfare programs. It’s not that we failed to examine whether
the programs were needed or superfluous or well or poorly run. What we failed
to look at was the enormous power being taken from persons and given to
politics. We insisted on seeing politics through the lens of freedom, as if
social legislation were a Polaroid print of quickly developing liberties. We
listened only to the freedom track on the electoral stereo. We predicted the
future of politics with a horoscope containing just the astrological sign
Libra.

We
weren’t exactly wrong. Living in the midst of the civil rights struggle, during
a cold war with one totalitarian ideology after a real war with another, we
understood the value of freedom and the ugly alternative to democracy. But we
didn’t — or didn’t want to — understand power. This was particularly true of
my age cohort, the baby boom, and particularly evident in the way we reacted
when politicians attempted to use their power to limit our freedom by
conscripting us into a war in Vietnam. We challenged the establishment by
growing our hair long and dressing like Bozo.

We’re
a pathetic bunch. And it didn’t start with the Beatles, marijuana, and the
pill. Recall the coonskin cap. I wore mine to school. Children of previous eras
may have worn coonskin caps but they had to eat the raccoons first.

*
* *

The
baby boom’s reluctance to attend to the issues of power resulted from the fact
that we had some. Freedom is power, after all.

And,
as for freedom, we were full of it. We were the first middle-class-majority
generation in history. We had the varieties of freedom that affluence provides,
plus we had the other varieties of freedom provided by relaxation of religious
convictions, sexual morality, etiquette, and good taste. The social
institutions that enforce prudence and restraint had been through a world war,
prohibition, depression, a world war part II, and Elvis. They were tired. We
were allowed to fall under the power of our own freedoms. And we powered
through them. Sixty years on we’re still at it, letting not age, satiety,
tedium, or erectile dysfunction stand in our way. Yet always at our back we
hear the nagging thought that power comes with responsibility.

We
don’t want that. Has there ever been a generation — a nation, a civilization
– more determined to evade responsibility? Probably.

The
ancient Romans sliced open animals and rum-maged in their kidneys and livers in
an attempt to avoid owning up to the consequences of empire and toga parties.
The Greeks were forever running off to hear the irresponsible babble of the
oracle at Delphi, the Larry King of her age. Maybe the Egyptians had an Oprah
barge on the Nile where deceased pharaohs could fall to pieces and promise to
become better mummies.

Nonetheless
we and our contemporaries in the developed countries of the Western world have
an impressive record of blame shifting, duty shirking, unaccountability, and
refusal to admit guilt or, better, to readily confess to every kind of guilt
then announce we’ve “moved on.”

A
gigantic global “Not My Fault” project has been undertaken with
heroic amounts of time, effort, and money devoted to psychology, psychotherapy,
sociology, sociopaths, social work, social sciences, Scientology, science,
chemistry, the brain, brain chemistry, serotonin reuptake inhibitors,
inhibitions, sex, sex therapy, talk therapy, talk radio, talk radio
personalities, personality disorders, drugs, drug-free school zones, Internet
addiction, economics, the Fed, PMS, SATs, IQ, DNA, evolution, abortion,
divorce, no-fault car insurance, the Democratic Party, diagnosis of attention
deficit disorder in small boys …The list goes on.

Neither
freedom nor power is what I should have been obsessed with for all these years.
But it’s too late now. I’m a child of my era. And speaking of that era, here
are three slogans from 1960s posters that never existed:

1.
But “freedom” is less highfalutin and more of an Americanism.
Theodore Parker, a prominent abolitionist, may be partly responsible for the
American usage. He is certainly responsible for the American definition of
democracy. Parker gave a series of speeches in Boston in the 1850s. Abraham
Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon attended one of these talks and gave the
following transcript to Lincoln, to obvious effect.

A
democracy — that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all
the people; of course, a government of the principles of eternal justice, the
unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake I will call it the idea of Freedom.

2. Although, as I write, the Supreme Court has overruled
some of this legislation. Corporations, as legal persons, turn out to have the
same rights to free speech as we personal persons. Corporations are people? Who
knew? This may explain how I got screwed by British Petroleum the other night
after a few too many drinks at the Capital Grille.

 

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