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Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Democratic Sentimentality

Albert Gore, Jr. has cogitated himself a new campaign theme: the People vs. the Powerful. "The People," are the shortsighted oafs required to provide Gore with a plurality in states totaling 270 electoral votes, while "the Powerful" are those of us with reservations about affording our government decision-making authority over everything from fossil fuel extraction to toilet tank capacity. Since Al doesn't decide what dressing to put on his organic baby greens without commissioning a poll, we can be fairly certain this is a theme with good odds of resonating with a public that knows more about the candidates on "Survivor" than it does its presidential choices.

Perhaps it is the fact that I'm reading Evelyn Waugh, but I am increasingly convinced that the leveling effect of democracy as an ethos is a bad thing. By "ethos" I mean to distinguish the democratic vote from democratic sentimentality. The latter is reflected in everything from "man on the street" interviews to a President who feels compelled to appear in blue jeans and mispronounce words.

The term "democratic sentimentality" is apt, I believe, because what drives head-nodding on Oprah and garners votes for demagogues is an emotional attachment by many Americans to what feels like principle, but is really just base jealousy and resentment. It is the mutation of an American Revolution that began by simultaneously rejecting oppressive government while maintaining social civility, but which has mutated into an embrace of oppressive government accompanied by the abandonment of social institutions that do not serve the immediate ends of selfish and ill-educated citizens.

It lives and breathes in every teacher who asks her students to call her "Miss Lisa," and in every pundit who thinks the amount of wealth left in the hands of high-income taxpayers is the primary measure of a tax reduction's merit. It produces evils like the death tax, the United Nations, and student government. Its unchecked metastasis is the force behind ridiculous presidential debates in which average citizens are allowed to ask insipid questions of what should be their social betters, who in turn supply meaningless answers distinguished only by the number of words lifted from the lexicon of democratic sentimentality (e.g., "fair," "equal," and "everyone").

Democratic sentimentality also undergirds inane laws restricting "price-gouging" (to wit, any price at or above the level necessary to ensure that a scarce resource goes to those who value it most) and "ticket scalping" (i.e., laws ensuring that events in great demand will be disproportionately attended by dolts who place the lowest value on their time -- an explanation in turn of abominations like rock music and fireworks at baseball games). It is the lurking sickness in society that has enabled what I saw on my most recent airline flight: a woman in her sixties sporting capri pants and a tank top that exposes her midriff, a man sitting next to me who hasn't learned how to cover his mouth when he coughs, and the disappearance of "please," "excuse me," and "thank you" from the vocabularies of passengers impatient for their chips and shot glasses of warm soda.

Yes, boorishness flows from democratic sentimentality, just as it flows from overindulgent parenting. Quite simply, we've allowed people to think that there are no standards for one's opinion, and from here it is only a short step to the conclusion that one's behavior is rightfully above reproach as well. Tie or no tie, "yes sir" or a grunt, flag or no flag on Memorial Day -- we have allowed "you're not the boss of me" to elevate from child's retort to the progressive's mantra. The moment we failed to ridicule the spectacle of slobbering housewives pontificating about nuclear weapons on "Donahue" is the moment we told every man that he could untuck his shirt and stop opening doors for ladies, and every child that he can wheedle and whine in the department store until he is given what he wants. We unmoored manners from the elitist traditions to which they had always been anchored, and now they drift in a chaotically mutating sea that, while fertile ground for social psychologists, is really no place to train up responsible well-mannered adults.

I don't think there is an easy solution to this pervasive sense that we -- the status-hostile "we" that appears to be the target demographic of every hack pollster and television executive -- all ought to be equal not just in right, but in financial and social outcome, and worse, opportunity for expression. We have created a terrible combination -- a society that believes everyone's opinion is worth hearing, and which lacks the good sense to determine otherwise.

There isn't an easy solution, but I'm sure there's a solution nonetheless. For instance, one of my favorite John Wayne movies is "Big Jake." I especially enjoy the scene in which an estranged son is mouthing off to his father, played by Wayne. "You may not respect your elders, but I'll teach you to respect your betters," says Wayne, before decking the punk. It seems that wide swaths of America are in dire need of just such a jolt, a good clock right on the kisser. The punk that was Wayne's son in "Big Jake" wasn't innately bad, and neither are most Americans. He was simply spoiled, and lacking an example of what better looked like. I think that's America today. Where is the Duke when you need him? He is long gone, and anyway it has become quite legally complicated to give somebody a sock in the jaw, even when you can prove he really deserves it.

But there's always ridicule and snobbery, thank goodness. If I can't punch lots of people in the nose, at the very least I can question their fitness as American citizens here, in Sand in the Gears.

Isn't this a great country?

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