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The crisis of authority

Today I had a cup of tea with a friend who is a brilliant analyst of culture. He told me that a more liberal friend of his had gone to the OWS protest in NYC prepared to sympathize, but came away discouraged. Why? The protesters were a disorganized mess. They’re so ideologically opposed to authority and committed to collective decision making that it takes them forever to deliberate and to decide the most basic things. My friend said that his pal came away from his time with the Zuccotti Park people certain that they weren’t going to amount to much, because they are so allergic to authority of any kind that they are basically sucking their thumbs. Please be clear: this visitor to the protests was sympathetic to them, which is why he didn’t laugh at their weirdo collectivism, but rather was discouraged by it.

This got my friend and me talking about how the critical problem facing us today — the keystone of all these interlocking crises — is a crisis of authority. Look, by the way, at what’s happened to Greece, which is on the verge of collapse. :

The failure of the state is clearly reflected in the fast deterioration of the services it provides in basic goods, such as education, health, sanitation, and transport. Diminished funds, frequent strikes, and low morale in public administration have combined to bring the state virtually to a halt.

Nor are authorities able to protect citizens, and their properties, from social disorder, widespread vandalism, and occasional bouts of violence, as has been painfully evident during the riots of December 2008 and the subsequent looting, burning, and destruction of property that has taken place in Athens and other Greek cities. The police, in particular, have been remarkably inadequate in maintaining public order.

Inevitably, this has caused a breakdown in the rule of law. A few months ago, to block works on a planned landfill site in a town near Athens, the local population clashed with the police for 126 days until the government decided to bow out of the project. Meanwhile, large numbers of Greeks have joined the ‘I Won’t Pay’ movement, refusing to cover bus fares or highway tolls. Even the university authorities have openly declared that they will not apply a new law that was overwhelmingly approved in Parliament. The number of public acts of disobedience against the law, can be listed, regrettably, at great length.

Turn to the political class and you will find that its authority has vanished into thin air. Prime minister George Papandreou may have shown political courage at times, but has no control over either his party or his government. Major opposition leader Antonis Samaras lacks ideas, a strong political team, and political capital among other EU heads of state. Squabbling over political and economic ruins, Greece’s leaders seem unable to build political trust and propose a realistic agenda for the future. No wonder, then, that, as repeated surveys show, their approval rates have collapsed.

That, obviously, is a severe and direct crisis of authority, with specific causes. We don’t have that here, and aren’t anywhere close to it, despite near-record low approval ratings for Congress, and the president at the nadir of his popularity. I don’t see that we are remotely close to where Greece is — though to be fair, we haven’t suffered the kind of economic pain that Greece has, either. If the economy goes into full-scale depression, all bets are off.

The crisis of authority that affects us most now is more subtle, but profound. The other day in New York, at the Phillip Blond event I covered, the conversation turned at the very end to the problem of authority in our society. Philip K. Howard said, “People need to be able to assert things that they can’t prove” in order for a society to function reasonably well. But, as Alasdair MacIntyre observed a generation ago, we have arrived at a time in the liberal political order (“liberal” = the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment) in which irresolvable conflicts paralyze the system. We struggle to decide what to do, and to establish ever more elaborate procedures for resolving our conflicts, because we cannot agree on what the proper ends of human life are, or even that there is such a thing. As our culture has become ever more unmoored from its traditional religious grounding, we have come, in general, to believe that the aim of our common striving is to maximize choice. What is chosen does not matter; that we choose is the thing. But this has nowhere to go but into incoherence. Phillip Blond spoke the other day about reconstituting civil society as the necessary measure to put Big Government and Big Business in their places, and to restore power to ordinary people. He’s right, but I have no idea how this is supposed to work, given that we have become so fragmented about authority. I asked Phillip this in the event the other day, and he said, like a good Aristotelian, that we have to once again start talking in terms of human flourishing as the right telos, or end, of our politics.

But how do we define what counts as human flourishing? We can’t agree on a measure for that. One side wants to keep abortion legal and widely available, in part because they believe it is necessary for the full flourishing, economic and personal, of a woman who does not want to have a child. The other side sees a woman who chooses to abort her unborn child so that she might flourish economically and in terms of personal autonomy, and they see a woman who is by no means flourishing, but is in deep moral trouble. A top Wall Street executive may be worth tens of millions of dollars, and may be able to buy anything he wants. By one standard, he is flourishing. By another, he could be in very deep trouble.

Who is right? How do we know?

My friend said yesterday that reams of social science data tell us that children flourish best in a home with a mother and a father. But we in this society are bound and determined to ignore that, to delegitimize the exclusive status of the traditional family, all in the name of individual rights and expanding personal choice. That is, we are making family law on the basis that having the liberty to expressing individual choice is the most important principle guiding us. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy well captured a common way of thinking today when he wrote, in the majority 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” If that is true, then freedom means protecting and expanding individual choice. The less choice we have, the less free we are — this, as opposed to a concept of politics that says the less opportunity we have to pursue and achieve the Good, the less free we are. In the latter case, the Good presupposes an understanding of goodness transcending the individual; in the former, the Good is the exercise of individual choice.

Said my friend the cultural analyst: “It has always seemed to me that you can’t have a strong concept of Authority without a strong concept of an Author.” In other words, we need a shared conception that God exists, and is the Author of our lives — which is to say, that our lives do not belong to us, but to Him. Or, to put it in more neutral, secular terms, without a widely shared conception that there is a moral order that transcends our individual personal preferences, and that our actions today must be judged by the standards that that moral order and its source prescribe, we will inevitably fragment. You cannot run a polis on emotivism — the idea that we decide what is true based on how we feel about it.

How can we agree on what human flourishing is when we no longer have a common understanding of what human nature is? Some of us don’t even believe that Truth exists, and of those who do, we have no common grounds for discovering that Truth. I’m generalizing, but I don’t think I’m overstating the problem by much. Philip K. Howard nailed it the other day when he said that people have to be able to assert things that they cannot prove for a society to function. We have been coasting on the accumulated moral capital of previous generations upon generations. This is why I believe that we have fewer moral and spiritual resources with which to meet a severe, Great Depression-like crisis, than our grandparents’ generation did, and why I think it will be more difficult for Americans to maintain hope if this thing gets significantly worse, or drags on like this for years and years.

What will the future bring? People cannot live with deep disorder for long. If severe economic hardship leads to civil unrest and grave political instability, authority will emerge somehow. We may hate what form it takes, but depending on what we’ve endured, we may also be grateful for it. Remember, however, power is not the same thing as Authority, though in the absence of a shared belief in the source of Authority, power, however illegitimate, may be all that we will have. We do live in interesting times.

Sorry this is all over the map. Woke up this morning with a rotten cold, and have been carpet-bombing self this evening with Sudafed. Not exactly an aid to clear, crisp thinking.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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