Saturday, June 23, 2012

#174 /A Follower Problem?

A column by David Brooks, the New York Times pundit, ran in my hometown newspaper last Sunday. Brooks believes that we have a "follower problem." Here is an excerpt from the column, to show how Brooks sees it:

Those "Question Authority" bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing [all] authority.

Brooks may be right that the public is increasingly rejecting the very idea of "authority," and if you pay attention to politics, you can pretty clearly see why this may be true. I am not convinced that this problem with our politics comes from the "followers." Most of our so-called "leaders" are either compromised or comatose. Or both.

The thoughts about "authority" that I expressed in a blog posting in December 2010 haven't changed, but my commentary then didn't deal with the issue of "authority" within the political world, a world that we create, and the world that we most immediately inhabit.

In every context, including the political, "authority" does come from the root word "author," and in our political world we literally "write" our chosen realities into existence by enacting the laws that tell us, like a doctor's prescription, what we ought to do. To the degree that we actually follow these written prescriptions, we change reality accordingly. And the nice thing about our world is that the human laws we promulgate do not define what we "must" do, but what we "want to do." We can change our mind, and change direction, by changing the laws that guide our action, so as to attain whatever end we aim for. Anything is possible, within the world that we create. This is, in fact, the nature of the political "freedom" which we so rightly prize.

The limits on our authority (and this is the point I made in my earlier blog posting) are imposed by no human reality, but by the laws of the Natural World. In that world, which we did not and do not create, laws are not "prescriptions" that inform us what we "ought" to do, but are "descriptions" that tell us what must, inevitably, occur. We can't "break" the law of gravity, or any of the other natural laws. These are true constraints on human action, and they define the world upon which we ultimately depend, and the laws of which are beyond our control.

Within the "political" realm, it would be, as Brooks warns, a kind of folly to suggest that there should be no "authority" whatsoever. When analyzed, any such claim is really a statement that we cannot, in fact, be the "authors" of our own future. And this is not true. The momentum of past choices carries us forward, but if we wish to change, and to seek some new destination, we can in fact do that. To do so, however, we need to acknowledge the "authority" of politics to chart a new course. We administer a new "prescription" by "authoring" the laws that will send us in a different direction.

Just "following" the so-called "leadership" of those now in positions of political power will not lead to a right prescription for the ills that afflict us. We definitely need to "question" the authority that is charting our current course. The "authority" that we must recognize is not the so-called "authority" of our current crop of political "leaders." What we need to reaffirm and rely upon is our own authority over the world we make ourselves. In other words, we need a politics that stems from a collective authorship of a new set of prescriptions to guide our actions.

We do make a mistake if we believe that "authority" is bad and must be rejected. The opposite is the case. But it is our own authority we must uphold, which means our own engagement in and commitment to a politics of "self-government."

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