Authoritarianism is a Hot Subject Nowadays

There is a lot of intellectual fuss about ‘authoritarianism’ nowadays, because of the rise of Donald Trump and what appears to be the overthrow of traditional ‘fusion’ conservatism.  A long essay by Amanda Taub in “Vox” is the most thorough discussion of this phenomenon that I have found.  In it she quotes a vast number of personalities like Matthew MacWilliams, Marc Hetherington, Jonathan Weiler, Karen Skinner, Stanley Feldman, Elizabeth Suhay, and Kyle Dropp.  And, this is an old subject; such as Theodore Adorno of the Frankfurt School [which became the New York School for Social Research] were concerned about this right after World War II, for obvious reasons – why had the Germans allowed this to happen?

I will not attempt to summarize all of these people here.  But I will go to a starting point – Stanley Feldman’s ‘four questions’ about child rearing where he claims that certain answers are the mark of an ‘authoritarian personality’.  And I will try to evaluate these questions in Christian terms, an uncomfortable exercise, because by the standards of our culture today, I will concede that Christianity has ‘authoritarian’ leanings.  After all, was not the original sin Eve’s substituting her ‘reasoned judgment’ for what the God in Charge said about the ‘apple’?  On the other hand, there are plenty of cultures in which Christianity appears as anti-authoritarian.  And, it must also be said, important to Christians is, or should be, the fact that an important part of God’s character is justice; and justice implies a limit to what those in authority can do; particularly the state, for which justice is the chief end.  Anyhow, these are the four questions.

  1. Which is the more important virtue for a child to have:  independence or respect for elders?

Since self-will is the original sin, I as a Christian would have to learn to ‘respect for elders’; but this respect has to be constrained by the understanding that elders are not perfect, that at the very least they should not be allowed to mess with your  private parts, and that God and His Word are a higher authority than any ‘elder’.

  1. Which is the more important virtue for a child to have:  obedience or self reliance?

In the long run, I would probably say self reliance. But obedience, by forcing us to yield our self-will in the short run, [plus being able to live under the various authorities in society] can in the end strengthen our self reliance, if parents and those in authority use authority to that end.  [Which sometimes they need to make more a point of doing.]

  1. Which is the more important virtue for a child to have:  to be considerate or to be well behaved?

I’ll have to say that in my case [and I’ll now blame my Aspergers more than my parents, though I don’t think my parents understood this issue either] I never realized, most of my life, that those were two different things!  And intellectually, at least, I think I now understand that they are; ‘well behaved’ is a matter of rule ethics, of following the rules made by ‘society’ [as I may have said before, ‘society’ is a sphere of authority that evangelicals often overlook], whereas ‘consideration’ is an active virtue rather than a rule.  I think I have discussed this when I wrote about ‘sympathy vs. empathy’.  So it is hard for me to prioritize between these two.

  1. Which is the more important virtue for a child to have:  curiosity or good manners?

Here I’d have to give the priority to good manners, most of the time; but there are times when good manners, as with submission to other human authority, can compromise our obedience to the Higher Authority.

Now as to Trumpian politics.  I recently made the comparison between Trump, who comes after the era of the Religious Right [yes they conceded the Vice Presidential nomination, and the writing of the Republican platform, to the Religious Right remnants, but the majority of Trumpites don’t prioritize these issues] and Nixon, who came before the era of the Religious Right and focused sentiments similar to those that Trump focuses (i.e., you have to be of a certain age to remember the ‘hardhats’ beating up the ‘hippies’).  In a sense, the Religious Right, in the end, was actually a distraction from issues of race, immigration, economics, and the like, by trying to focus on a short list of ‘moral’ issues; that distraction has now failed.

And, having spent time in China, I have something else to say.  People from the four Confucian cultures, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, however Christian many of them might now be, will still carry over a Confucian world-view; and their answer to these four questions will probably test more ‘authoritarian’ than most American authoritarians.  I may quote again the William Faulkner story, “The Barn Burner.”  In this story, the ten-year-old boy, Colonel Sartorial Snopes, has a father who beats him and his mother, and also has the vice of arson; the father regularly gives in to his lust to burn down barns, and the family has to move on.  Well, C. S. Snopes gets to see and experience a beautiful and orderly home, and runs to the police to inform on his father before the father can burn these people’s barn down.  The Confucians have such a high view of filial loyalty and obedience that they would conclude that C. S. did the wrong thing.  I think very few American ‘authoritarians’ would go as far as that.  And I don’t see Chinese Americans necessarily rallying to Trump’s side, much less being his most loyal supporters.  Where are the ‘Tiger Mothers for Trump’?

And there is something bigger that is not being addressed.  Jonathan Haidt, whom we have praised in Blue Kennel before, has posted on his blog about a writer named Karen Stenner, who wrote a book in 2008 called The Authoritarian Dynamic.  And Thomas Edsall has discussed this in a column in the New York Times.  Now Professor Haidt has also cooperated with Greg Lukianoff by co-writing an essay provocatively called ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, and Lukianoff is known for publishing a broadside called Freedom from Speech.  Now it is certainly true that among the ‘speech’ that the ‘freedom from speech’ advocates on the campus [and off] want ‘freedom from’ is Trump’s own speech!  But nevertheless, the demand for ‘freedom from speech’ is clearly an authoritarian impulse.  What lies behind it is clearly a desire for safety and security from ‘The Other’ in the realm of ideas and thoughts.  Philip Klein, in the Washington Examiner, has suggested a possible connection in an article entitled ‘America’s dangerous outcome-based culture threatens liberty’.  He tells us that an ‘ends justify the means’ culture has become rooted on all sides; from the arbitrary ‘no fly list’ which we can mysteriously get on without any due process, to trying to force commercial bakers to bake cakes for events they consider abhorrent, to religious and creedal screening of people entering the United States, to eminent domain for private benefit to ‘create jobs.’  [The reader probably knows that the last is my original Hot Button.]  The American system is precisely about not just any old process being used to achieve a supposedly desirable end.  That’s part of it.  And I would like to see people like Haidt and others pursue the similarities in motivation between the Trumpian ‘authoritarians’ and the ‘freedom from speech’ people.  I think there is a fertile field there.





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