We Are The Obedient
Sun, 15 Sep 2002
We tell ourselves
that in America we are the Free People. I wonder
whether we might not better
be called the Obedient People, the Passive
People, or the Admonished People.
I doubt that any country, anywhere, has been so regulated, controlled, and
directed as we are. We are bred to obey.
And obey we
It begins with the sheer volume of law, rules, and
administrative duties. Most of the regulation makes sense in isolation, or can
plausible. Yet there is so much of it.
Used to be if you
wanted a dog, you got a dog. It wasn't really the
Today you need a dog license, a shot card for the dog, a collar and tags, proof
that the poor beast has been neutered, and you have to keep it on a leash and
walk it only in designated places. It's all so we don't get rabies.
consider cars. You have to have a title, insurance, and keep it up to date;
tags, country sticker, inspection sticker, emissions test. Depending where you
are, you can't have chips in the windshield, and you need a zoned parking
permit. You have to wear a seatbelt. And of course there are unending traffic
laws. You can get a ticket for virtually anything, usually without knowing that
you were doing anything wrong.
Then there's paperwork. If you have a
couple of daughters with college funds in the stock market, annually you have to
fill out three sets of federal taxes, three sets of state, and file four state
and four federal
estimated tax forms, per person, for a total of twenty-four.
include personal property taxes for the country, business
tangible business-assets forms, and so on.
Now, I'm not
suggesting that all these laws are bad. Stupid, frequently, but evil, no.
Stopping at traffic lights is probably a good idea, and certainly is if I'm
crossing the street. But the laws never end. Bring a doughnut on the subway, and
you get arrested. Don't replace your
windows without permission in writing
from the condo association. Nothing is too trivial to be regulated. Nothing is
not some government's business.
I wonder whether the habit of constant
obedience to infinitely numerous rules doesn't inculcate a tendency to obey any
rule at all. By having every aspect of one's life regulated in detail, does one
not become accustomed to detailed regulation? That is, detailed
For many it may be hard to remember freer times. Yet they
existed. In 1964, when I graduated from high school in rural Virginia, there
speed limits, but nobody much enforced them, or much obeyed them. If you
wanted to fish, you needed a pole, not a license. You fished where you wanted,
not in designated fishing zones. If you wanted to carry your rifle to the bean
field to shoot whistle pigs, you just did it. You didn't need a license and
nobody got upset.
To buy a shotgun in the country store, you needed
money, not a
background check, waiting period, proof of age, certificate of
and a registration form. If your tail light burned out, then you
one tail light. If you wanted to park on a back road with your girl
the cops, all both of them, didn't care. If you wanted to swim in
creek, you didn't need a Coast Guard approved life jacket.
different. You lived in the world as you found it, and behaved because you were
supposed to, but you didn't feel as though you were in a white-collar prison.
And if anybody had asked us, we would have
said that the freedom was worth
more to us than any slightly greater
protection against rabies, thank you.
Which nobody ever got anyway.
Today, the Mommy State never leaves off
protecting us from things I'd just as soon not be protected from. We must wear a
helmet on a
motorcycle: Kevorkian can kill us, but we cannot kill ourselves.
Why is it
Mommy Government's business whether I wear a helmet? In fact I do
wear one, but it should be my decision.
And so it goes from
administrative minutiae (emissions inspections) to gooberish Mommyknowsbestism
("Wea-a-ar your lifejacket, Johnny!") to important moral decisions. Obey in
small things, obey in large things.
You must hire the correct proportion
of this and that ethnic group,
watch your sex balance, prove that you have
the proper attitude toward
homosexuals. You must let your children be
politically indoctrinated in
appropriate values, must let your daughter get
an abortion without telling
you, must accept affirmative action no matter how
morally repugnant you find it.
And we do. We are the obedient people.
the regulation of our behavior becomes more pervasive, so does
of enforcement grow more nearly omnipresent. In Washington, if you eat on the
subway, they really will put you in handcuffs, as they recently did to a girl of
twelve. In 1964 in King George County, the cop would have said, "Sally, stop
that." Arresting a child for sucking on a sourball would never have entered a
state trooper's mind.
Which brings us to an ominous observation. America
capable of totalitarianism. It won't be the jackbooted variety,
a peculiarly mindless, bureaucratic insistence on conformity. What
we call political correctness is an American approach to political
Our backdoor totalitarianism has the added charm of being
crazy. Think about it. Confiscating nail clippers at security gates,
arresting the eating girl on the subway, the confiscation from an aging general
of his Congressional Medal of Honor because it had points, the countless
ejections from school of little boys for drawing soldiers, or the Trade Centers
in flames, playing cowboys and Indians, for pointing a chicken finger and saying
This isn't intelligent authoritarianism aimed at purposeful if
disagreeable ends. It is the behavior of petty and stupid people, of minor minds
over-empowered, ignorant but angry, and charmed to find that they can push
others around. It is the exercise of power by people who have no
obey. We are the obedient people.
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