What once seemed the fruit of perfect reason, is later seen for rank folly. What was virtue yesterday, is anathema today. What you knew for certain then, you know for nonsense now. Like the King of Siam, you find confusion in conclusion you concluded long ago.
Nothing wrong with a certain limberness of mind, since so often our certainty was a huge mistake in the first place. It’s not just that we adapt our understanding to new-learned facts, or that our view changes as we scale previously unclimbed vantage points. Even some core values and fundamental standards are subject to review and revision, and should be.
So things – including our minds – can change. And that's a good.
Except when it isn’t. Except when we're not actually assimilating new facts or evolving our mores, but instead simply letting our cognitive dissonance run wild.
Consider the recently reported results of two polls, one take in 2006, in the middle of George W. Bush’s second administration, and a similar one taken this year, in the middle of Barrack Obama’s first. In both polls, Gallup asked if respondents considered their own government “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” In both polls, just about 45% of the respondents said they did. If you’re a regualar visitor here, or are ever subjected to my in-person bloviations, you’ll know I find that number too low for common sense. If you love this country as I do, that number cannot make you happy.
But what’s far more striking about the two polls is this: in each poll, just 21% of respondents who belonged to the party in power considered government a threat to their freedoms, while large majorities of those out of power (57% of Democrats in 2006, 66% of the Republicans in 2010) said they perceived the threat. In simple terms: respondents’ disposition toward the threat posed by government was overwhelmingly tied to whether their party sat in the White House or not.
In even simpler terms: people are idiots.
I’ll grant you that the president of the United States is a powerful fellow. But he is NOT the government. Neither are the 15 people in his Cabinet. Nor the 535 folks in the House and Senate. The government is the bureaucracy and the millions of bureaucrats who populate it.* While I can’t find precise numbers for the amount of turnover, across the bureaucracy writ large, attributable to a change from one administration to the next, I’d be stunned if it approached one percent.
Let’s be clear: I don’t use “bureaucrat” as a pejorative as so many do. My dad spent 25 years as a government bureaucrat, and the people of Cleveland were better for it. They were better because his decisions about what the city ought to buy, for how much, from whom, had a steadying constancy largely unaffected by the whims of ever-changing mayors and council members. (Although no one ever really liked the chartreuse police cars.) Bureaucrats like Dad are what keep the machinery moving, and the inertia of their influence is what keeps the air traffic control radar running on Inauguration Day. It’s not just that they know which forms need filling out. They know in which drawer the forms are kept; they know how to order more forms.
But we’ve talked here before about the nature of the State, and how its natural tendency to grow and assume greater powers necessarily comes at the expense of each individual’s God-given rights – that stuff Jefferson said was unalienable. If you only say you are worried about that dynamic when the party you oppose is in the White House, then you are an intellectually dishonest scoundrel. If you really only believe in that dynamic when the party you oppose is in the White House, that’s even worse – your intellectual dishonesty is so complete, you’ve managed to delude even yourself.
But at least you’ve got plenty of company. There are droves of people who have reduced themselves from citizen participants in a republic to spectators at an arena, mindlessly rooting on one team in favor of another, cheering the referees as geniuses when they call the visitors for interference, damning them when they call the home team. That’s OK for football. But if this nation, conceived in and dedicated to personal liberty, is going to long endure, we have to dig deeper. We have to see more clearly, act more honorably. We have to be willing to apply a rigorous intellectual honesty to the actions our representatives take, to the policies they pursue.
If you celebrated Charlie Rangel’s shaming on the floor of the House last week, were you similarly gleeful at Tom Delay’s criminal conviction? If you were incensed about warrantless wiretapping under Bush, do you know it has continued, unabated, under Obama? If you think ACORN was a front for an Astroturf conspiracy, were you equally unhappy with where the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth got their money? If you think Obama is dishonest for declaring Iraq a victory while 50,000 Americans remain there under arms and in harm’s way, please tell me you remember “Mission Accomplished.” Think Camp X-Ray was an outpost in “Bush’s Gulag”? OK. Can you agree with me that, as the Dormouse might have said, it’s much of a muchness to the 174 prisoners still in Guantanamo two years into Obama’s administration,?
So things change. Except when they don’t. The least you owe yourself is to recognize the difference.
* How many is that? Good luck finding a reliable figure. Excluding the military and some security services, the best numbers for direct federal employees seem to hover around 2.75 million. If you want to add 1.5 million for the members of the armed services, I won’t quibble.