Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bureaucracy: Isn't It Strange?

Has it ever struck you as just a little strange that the world today is governed by bureaucracies, in other words, that modern nations are run out of offices? For that is what the word literally means: rule from an office. According to, the word is first attested in French in the 18th century, and was coined by physiocrat Vincent de Gournay (1712-1759). Gournay presumably coined the word to name a phenomenon that had not yet been named. In other words, bureaucracy was a mode of governance that was relatively new in the world and had yet to be described.

But, since when were we ruled by a race of pale-faced men who spend their days sitting behind desks? In days of yore, kings held court and did justice for the common man in the open air. And they didn't get bogged down in technical details either, because it must have been difficult to keep track of files when a gust of wind could blow all the papers away at any moment. For example, according to Jean de Joinville, St. Louis
after hearing Mass, went to the wood of Vincennes, where he would sit down with his back against an oak, and make us all sit round him. Those who had any suit to present could come to speak to him without hindrance from an usher or any other person. The king would address them directly, and ask: "Is there anyone here who has a case to be settled?" Those who had one would stand up. Then he would say: "Keep silent all of you, and you shall be heard in turn, one after the other."

(Quoted in Antonin Scalia, "The Rule of Law as a Law of Rules," 56 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1175 (1989))

Besides doing justice for their subjects, many kings were renowned for their martial prowess. William the Conqueror earned his epithet at the Battle of Hastings. Richard the Lionheart wasn't going to stare all day at some dusty parchments when he could be fighting the infidel in the Holy Land. Frederick Barbarossa died a rather inglorious death--drowning in a stream on his way to the Holy Land during the Third Crusade--but he had already spent a considerable part of his reign on the battlefield.

Not only did medieval kings act this way, this was how they were expected to act, as reflected in popular tales from the Middle Ages. The King Arthur stories tell us of knights errant who delighted in rescuing damsels in distress, not in negotiating legal settlements with villains and knaves. The closest King Arthur himself ever came to becoming a bureaucrat was when he sat down once in a while with his wisest counselors at the Round Table to discuss some pressing matter. Once that was done, he was free to return to the jousting tournament or the banquet hall.

The average medieval court, of course, was not Camelot, and real medieval kings were supposed to take care of their fair share of administrative duties, but which most of them seem to have avoided by going out hunting. For example, relatively soon after the Norman invasion, the kings of England found themselves so overwhelmed by these mundane tasks that they had to delegate them to others. Over time, the Lord Chancellor became in effect England's chief justice and "keeper of the king's conscience." The Exchequer was assigned the duty of collecting revenue for the royal household. Nevertheless, these medieval bureaucracies were nowhere near as large as their modern equivalents. Moreover, the stories that have come down to us always show the ideal ruler as either a man of action or a man of wisdom, or in a really ideal word as both: a wise warrior. They never portray the king as a pencil-pusher, or even as the pencil-pushers' boss. And this ideal had some basis in reality.

What would happen if a contemporary American or European ruler tried to act more like a medieval king? The effect would not necessarily be that which he intended. For instance, were most Americans really impressed by George W. Bush when he landed a Navy jet on an aircraft carrier (or rather sat in the cockpit while a real pilot landed it for him)? Would we respect Barack Obama more if, after playing a pick-up basketball game (no jousting permitted), he took a seat on the White House lawn and listened to federal inmates' petitions for habeas corpus? Do we fear Vladimir Putin because he likes to be photographed shirtless while horseback riding? Did Benito Mussolini inspire awe in his people, or his enemies, because he liked to ski shirtless?

My guess is that most people just laugh at these examples because they're somehow ridiculous. Nowadays we expect our highest-ranking government officials to act less like kings and more like business executives. First of all, they need to keep their clothes on. Second, their chief domestic concern is usually the national economy, such as ensuring job growth and overseeing government entitlement programs. Indeed, when presidents go to economic summits or visit foreign leaders, they could almost be seen as traveling salesmen drumming up interest in their product, or in this case their country (albeit traveling salesmen with huge expense accounts and bodyguards). Third, while they may retain power as the "commander in chief," they usually have little or no military background; most senators or cabinet secretaries, I suspect, are not accomplished sword-fighters.

There was obviously a significant shift that took place, from the earlier conception of the ruler as a wise warrior to that of the ruler as a business executive at the head of a vast bureaucracy, but I don't know anything about the causes and ultimate importance of this shift. I apologize for not giving any answers here, but I do have two questions, which are probably better than any answers I could offer:

1. When and why did this shift from the king as man of action and wisdom to the president as business executive take place? My hunch is that this modern preference for business executives as national leaders is simply one aspect of the transition from feudalism to mercantilism (and beyond).

2. Have we lost something importance with this shift? Granted that some administration will always be necessary, it nevertheless seems that the world has lost some of its romance. Many people, for instance, who work primarily in an office still itch at the opportunity to get out.

So, next time you see a picture of Vladimir Putin strutting his stuff, ask yourself: Is he simply a misunderstood soul trying to revive medieval kingship? Or, is he just a peacock?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Crafting a National Epic

America has no national epic. Nor mythology. Nor even a novel of particular distinction (hence the reason every author can aspire to write the Great American Novel). J. R. R. Tolkien was concerned that Britain had a similar lack of national mythology, so to rectify the problem he created Middle Earth, cobbling together pieces of Anglo-Saxon mythology, adding bits of English history and dashes from Roman, Celtic and other mythologies, and then giving the whole thing the original touch of a single author. If one were to undertake such a project for the United States, where would you begin?

In a previous thought experiment, involving the boys of St. Boniface College, I asked if America has a canon. The result included Homer, the Bible, and the works of Shakespeare, among other things. But none of those were written by Americans, you might say. Right you are. The curious thing about the United States is that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. So we should expect that our deep cultural roots run beyond our own shores. Indeed, even the Roman epic, the Aeneid, locates Roman origins in the Greek world, though it also draws upon elements of more local Italic history. It seems to me an American epic should draw on our indigenous pre-Columbian history, the history of the colonies and United States themselves, and the literary heritage of our primary parent cultures in Europe.

In addition to the works named above, where might an author of a great American mythological epic look? Virgil looked to Homer, so why don't we take a look at some other national epics? I turned to the Wikipedia page on the matter.

First there are the ancient roots: Homer, Virgil and Scripture. All these are fairly well known to most educated folks.

But then I started looked at more modern works. The great works of England are not so obscure: Beowulf, the Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost and Shakespeare. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) is not nearly so widespread, though known to students of early English history.

But the national epics (or contenders for that title) of the other British nations are lesser-known. For Scotland, John Barbour's The Brus - about Robert the Bruce and Scotland's fight for independence throughout the Middle Ages - and James Macpherson's Ossian cycle - a retelling/translation of Scottish mythology (pictured above left) - are the leading contenders. I'd never heard of either, but both look like fun (at least if I can get through the old Scottish of The Brus). Ireland's Táin Bó Cúailnge - the story of an ancient raid to steal a magic bull (pictured below right) - I have never read, but I remember shelving it at the city library; does that count? Of course some would argue that James Joyce' stream-of-consciousness Ulysses is the real national epic of Ireland these days. The mythical Mabinogion of Wales I am familiar with, but only because of some poking into Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles.

And what of the Germans, that largest ancestral group in America. I started to read the Nibelungenlied - the story of the hero Siegfried, his murder and subsequent avenging by his wife - one break, but did not finish. I have never picked up Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, nor am I sure I want to; Romantic though I be, I'm not sure I want to read about the the sturm und drang of an angst-ridden young man.

Or what of the Norse, the bold folk who were the first Europeans to come to the New World? I think I own a copy of the Eddas somewhere, but I have never read it.

I was as lost among the various works that have tried to be or have been held up as some sort of American national work: Joel Barlow's Columbiad? Never heard of it. It doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page! Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass? It may be a collection of poems, but could make great source material for an epic writer. Alas, I confess I've never read it. Several works I read in part or whole in high school: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I enjoyed; To Kill a Mockingbird was all right (though hardly epic, but perhaps I need to read it again) and I hated The Grapes of Wrath. I never made it through Moby-Dick (a second attempt may be in order) and I have never even picked up The Great Gatsby or Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. But at least we've all heard of these.

So what does all this mean? Let me suggest several possibilities:
  1. The epic, or at least the national epic, is dead. If people cared more we would have at least heard of these. In fact, if people cared, we'd already have one, right? But although England has several great contenders for the title, I think Tolkien was right that none of them quite synthesized England and its habits in the way that the Aeneid did for Rome. Work remained to be done, as evidenced by the run-away success of Middle Earth.
  2. I have a lot of reading to do when I retire. Some day if I find myself independently wealthy and feeling inspired, perhaps I'll start writing that American epic. In fact, I might start sooner.
  3. Perhaps we all have a lot of reading to do. This may have been an imperfect catalog of our roots as Americans, but was something of the sort. If we are so cut off from our own heritage we are culturally adrift, a dangerous thing.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Christopher Lasch on Advertising and Narcissism

Advertising pervades our lives. Almost from the moment we wake up, we are confronted with it. Whether we get our news from an old-fashioned newspaper or from the Internet, the news is paid for by the advertisements on the page. Our daily commute--whether by car, bus, or train--bombards us with advertisements. If we turn on the radio or TV, there it is: more advertisement. If we go to the movies, we are subjected to ads before the movie and product placements in the movie. We seek out diversion, but while we are trying to relax we have to listen to someone tell us, subtly yet insistently, that we need to go out and buy more stuff. Indeed, it could be said, without exaggeration, that the news and entertainment media are nothing more than vehicles for advertising.

This ad-saturation is usually condemned, when it is condemned at all, because it leads to materialism and consumerism. This criticism is certainly true, as far as it goes, but a more accurate explanation of the danger of advertising is that it leads to narcissism:

Society reinforces these [narcissistic] patterns [of behavior in the family] not only through “indulgent education” and general permissiveness but through advertising, demand creation, and the mass culture of hedonism. At first glance, a society based on mass consumption appears to encourage self-indulgence in its most blatant forms. Strictly considered, however, modern advertising seeks to promote not so much self-indulgence as self-doubt. It seeks to create needs, not to fulfill them; to generate new anxieties instead of allaying old ones. . .Yet the propaganda of commodities simultaneously makes [contemporary man] acutely unhappy with his lot. By fostering grandiose aspirations, it also fosters self-denigration and self-contempt.

--Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), pp. 180-181

Narcissism, as Lasch uses the term, is more than simply a tendency to daydream about oneself or to look at oneself in the mirror for too long. True narcissism is a way of compensating for “a sense of inner emptiness”; it is characterized by “dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence.” The narcissist may often come across to others as “full of himself,” but he actually turns out to be profoundly insecure. The narcissist’s self-deprecating sense of humor is not a sign of modesty, but rather a cover for his general unease. He may seem full of energy and ambition, but what motivates him is not confidence but fear of his inner emptiness. And in contemporary society advertising is the engine that drives many of our decisions, by making us think that we are lacking as individuals and that the only effective way to fill this lack is to buy a certain product. In short, advertising, by encouraging us to fantasize in order to overcome the gnawing emptiness it manipulates us into feeling, brings out any latent narcissism lurking within us.

The specter of a society fueled by narcissism--perhaps not narcissism in the strict clinical sense, but certainly narcissism in a broader sense--is what makes The Culture of Narcissism one of the most frightening books written in America in the past half-century. It is up to every reader to decide whether Lasch succeeded in his attempt to psychoanalyze an entire culture. But, even if only half of Lasch’s diagnosis is correct, it still means that America is emotionally dominated by, and is economically dependent on, narcissism. What hope can there be for such a country?