Published February 28, 2006
The New Year began in Britain with an initiative from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, designed to combat what many Britons see as an epidemic of anti-social behavior, particularly on the part of young people. Titled “Respect Action Plan” or RAP — the usefulness of the acronym will become apparent presently — it proposed increased police powers and on-the-spot fines for anti-social behavior, more social and “outreach” workers for “problem families” and classes in parenting, all in the name of increasing the sum-total of “respect” in British society. The example of its absence cited by Mr. Blair was of someone “spitting at an old lady on her way to the shops” — something which, to be sure, is already an offense but which is almost never prosecuted. This is because, he said, the cost of doing so and obtaining a conviction resulting in a small fine has seemed too great. Now the fine can be levied on the spot — assuming that there’s a policeman around who saw it happen.
That seems a bit unlikely, frankly. Would the spitting yobbo — the picturesque British word for the class of loutish youths most likely to behave anti-socially — have spat in the first place if a policeman was about? And why would he be spitting at an old lady anyway? I can understand snatching her purse, but spitting seems a gesture more likely to be reserved for a rival yobbo with whom he is fighting, or trying to pick a fight, or over whom he seeks to proclaim his dominance in a particularly insulting way — like yobboesque Sean Taylor of the Washington Redskins who was fined $17,000 for spitting in the face of Michael Pittman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a National Football League playoff game at about the same time that Mr. Blair was making his announcement. No one thought that even that sanction was likely to increase respectful behavior in the NFL, and the Respect Action Plan’s fines were likely to be considerably less than $17,000.
Anyway, the Prime Minister himself didn’t receive much respect in the rough handling the Plan got from the British press and public — and even from his own cabinet, which forced a cut in its funding from £90 million to £25 million. The opinion was widespread that the whole business was a mere gimmick, an exercise in spin and public relations. And, indeed, it did rather seem like an attempt by the government to look busy on a matter of public concern about which it could do little but look busy. Even the devoutest believer in the state’s power to do good might hesitate to claim that people can be made to behave respectfully towards each other at the bidding of Parliament. Yet who among us, even in the USA where yobboes are if not confined to the NFL comparatively thin on the ground, would not applaud the idea, supposing that there were even the smallest likelihood that it might contribute to better manners among the young or more civil behavior in any class of society?
When it was first raised in the wake of his party’s election victory last May, Mr. Blair had been at some pains to distinguish his chosen word “respect” from one which some people with long memories might otherwise have been tempted to confuse it, namely “deference.” Respect good, deference bad, was Mr. Blair’s message in a nut-shell, and it was easy to see why. The Labour Party, at least by its own and proudly rendered accounting, had had its origins a century ago in the grand refusal by a hitherto subservient working class to pay customary deference to industrial bosses, who were mostly Liberals, or country squires and parsons, who were mostly Conservatives. The Prime Minister was having enough trouble reining in his increasingly restive and almost invariably more left-leaning back-benchers without giving them any further excuse to think of himself as lacking in respect for the party’s radical traditions.
Moreover, unlike “deference”, “respect” could be used to lend just a hint of street-cred — to use a term you’re unlikely to hear from anyone who actually has it — to the initiative. The rap and hip-hop divisions of the popular culture alluded to in the acronymic title of Mr. Blair’s initiative have made poetical and musical demands for respect, usually with veiled or not-so veiled menaces, a familiar theme among the young people at whom they have been directed. The hope was obviously that they would thus be able to make an easy transition from admiration for the macho posturings of rapping outlaws and bad-boys to an enthusiasm for good manners and decorous behavior towards everybody, including old ladies, because the idea of respect is common to both. I don’t know, but something about this idea doesn’t seem quite well thought through to me.
In fact, I think that the two kinds of respect are antithetical to each other. He who demands respect almost invariably does so because he is not entitled to it and would not receive it without the energetic aggressiveness of the demand itself — which is also, of course, necessarily lacking in respect towards those of whom it is made. Mr. Blair assumes on the part of the yobboes a commitment to Enlightenment principles, such as that he who asks for respect must therefore naturally be prepared to give it, that is I fear unwarranted. His thinking may have been shaped, however, by the fact that politicians are a major exception to the rule that those who are entitled to respect normally receive it without having to ask for it. This is because, partly on account of the Labour Party’s glorious history, they inhabit a political culture so terrified of deference that it has become almost a point of honor not to show even basic respect to those who, up until only a generation ago, would have been thought by left and right alike to have been among the first of those with a natural claim on it.
The media have of course led the way in promoting this respect-less culture, in Britain as in America, on the principle recently enunciated by Jeremy Paxman, a well-known British interviewer of politicians on television, who claimed that, whenever he sat down with one for an interview, he was constantly asking himself: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Small wonder, then, that Tony Blair — who, like his American counterpart, George W. Bush, has for some years now been branded a liar almost routinely in the press of both countries — should be found pleading for everyone to show more respect for everyone else. There was more than a hint of his self identification with the anonymous old lady at whom drunken yobboes have allegedly been spitting.
Unpleasant though they are, the yobboes may in some ways have the truer notion of what respect entails, and above all its close relationship to fear. For all the power of his office, the politician of today has scarcely more power to compel respect than the old lady, and where respect cannot be compelled it is unlikely to grow spontaneously. Yet what kept it in place in the old culture of deference was only rarely the threat of violence. Much more typically the social sanction of being thought unworthy a place among the social élites — either the socially ambitious bourgeoisie or the “respectable” working classes — was enough to intimidate those who might otherwise have been tempted into boorish behavior. It wasn’t fear of the old lady that kept our grandfathers from spitting at her — if, indeed, they had to be kept from it — but a fear of being thought ungentlemanly or lacking in common decency. For that is what people would have thought who had been raised in an honor culture based on the principle that gentlemanliness and decency both demanded a condescending respect by the strong for the weak.
You only have to look at what has happened to the word “condescending” — “condescending respect” is now, of course, an oxymoron — to see what happened to the world of respectability and deference where respect once dwelt at its ease and without having to make a fuss about itself, either in the form of rap or of RAP. Mr. Blair should have known better than anybody, or better than anybody but Mr. Bush, how small a part respect now plays in our public life. How were the yobboes to be impressed with the social necessity of being respectful towards old ladies by politicians and journalists who have so little respect for each other?
Also at the same time of the RAP announcement in London, Senate confirmation hearings were beginning in Washington on Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and they were being conducted, at least on the Democratic side, rather in the spirit of Mr. Paxman. Not only was Mr. Alito assumed, in questioning by some of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, notably Senator Edward Kennedy, to be lying, but he was forced to deny that he was a bigot or a right-wing nut as well.
The most interesting line of questioning, however, had to do with his support, in opinions he wrote as a Federal Appeals Court judge, for executive power. One of the witnesses called by the Democrats to testify against his confirmation, an assistant professor of law at Berkeley called Goodwin Liu, cited it as a disqualification for service on the Supreme Court that the nominee had ruled too often for the executive in his previous opinions. “In the contested cases, Judge Alito agreed with the government over 90 percent of the time, far more often than other appellate judges in similar cases, even those appointed by Republican presidents,” claimed Assistant Professor Liu. In the Democratic view, apparently, the job of judges, like that of journalists, is to seek out and punish misbehavior on the part of government officials, and it is obviously a blot on their record if they don’t find enough of it.
According to the Washington Post, during his confirmation hearings more questions were asked of Judge Alito about his attitude towards presidential power than on any other subject and far more than were asked of Chief Justice John Roberts during his confirmation hearings only a few months before. The reason was not far to seek, for in December the New York Times had revealed that the National Security Agency had been listening in to conversations between people in America, some of them American citizens, and people overseas without obtaining a warrant from the special magistrates empowered to grant such warrants in cases involving suspected terrorist activity. Democrats were particularly interested in presenting for Judge Alito’s consideration the opinion of Justice Robert Jackson in the case of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer of 1952 when he concurred with the majority of the court that President Harry Truman could not use his exercise of war powers during the Korean War to avert a labor dispute in the steel industry. As Adam Liptak forecast in the Times, “Whether and how Justice Jackson’s analysis should apply to broadly similar recent assertions by the Bush administration, notably concerning its domestic surveillance program, will plainly be a central theme when questioning of Judge Alito begins.”
“Broadly similar” was certainly getting a broad use out of “broadly,” but in the Times’s case it had long since been plain that it would take the same approach as the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to Judge Alito and pick up any available stick to beat the administration with. In revealing the NSA surveillance, the paper and its (inevitably) anonymous source showed no more respect for the office of the presidency, whose prestige as well as its power was thus brought into play, than could have been expected. The Times, indeed, by sitting on the information for a year (by its own account) may have shown a certain respect for national security — or for the damage to its own reputation in being thought to be unconcerned with same — but the President himself and his pleas against publication got no more respect than Mr. Blair’s sputum-dabbled old lady. The Times and the rest of the media have their own reputation to keep up, after all, and they want us to respect it. It is the reputation born of the Watergate affair of the media as the scourges of governmental wrong-doing, the exposers of scandals and the brave refusers of deference to the wielders of the civil and military powers in their country.
Thus as I write we have had for a month or more yet another spate of eager speculation by columnists and pundits as to how far their fervent hopes for a new Watergate might yet be gratified. For some, like Frank Rich of The Times, this begins to look to anyone who doesn’t share those hopes like a form of columnar masturbation, a deliberate self-titillation with delicious fantasies of scandalous behavior yet to be revealed.
Given (he writes) that the reporters on the Times story, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, wrote that nearly a dozen current and former officials had served as their sources, there may be more leaks to come, and not just to The Times. Sooner or later we’ll find out what the White House is really so defensive about. Perhaps it’s the obvious: the errant spying ensnared Americans talking to Americans, not just Americans talking to jihadists in Afghanistan. In a raw interview transcript posted on MSNBC’s Web site last week — and quickly seized on by John Aravosis of AmericaBlog — the NBC News foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked Mr. Risen if he knew whether the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour might have been wiretapped. (Mr. Risen said, “I hadn’t heard that.”) Surely a pro like Ms. Mitchell wasn’t speculating idly. NBC News, which did not broadcast this exchange and later edited it out of the Web transcript, said Friday it was still pursuing the story. If the Bush administration did indeed eavesdrop on American journalists and political opponents (Ms. Amanpour’s husband, Jamie Rubin, was a foreign policy adviser to the Kerry campaign), it’s déjà Watergate all over again.
What a lot of ifs and maybes and perhapses! Oh if only! Yet what the would-be scandal lacked was any obvious appeal to public opinion, not to mention the problem that the same people have been crying “scandal” steadily for nearly three years now and are less and less likely to be listened to. The more the NSA eavesdropping has been sold as a scandal, the more it has had to be sold as a scandal, and the more it has had to be sold as a scandal the more remote the would-be scandal became from the world inhabited by the rest of us — those of us, that is, without a professional interest in drumming up scandal. In that world people are not uninterested in questions of civil liberties but they’re just not very interested in the civil liberties of terrorists or even those who might be terrorists. This is because they are much more afraid of terrorists — not unreasonably, it may seem to some — than they are of being treated like terrorists themselves. Most people don’t make any foreign phone calls. Or receive any either. And if a certain proportion, even a very small proportion, of those who do are talking to terrorists, why not listen to all of them?
But whatever the legal status of the eavesdropping, surely there is more than a case to be made for keeping discussion about it confined to government and opposition leaders with security clearances rather than airing it in the public prints and across the airwaves. In fact, the only reason for not doing so is the undimmed hope of media and less responsible members of that opposition — evident for nearly three years now in the treatment of the missing WMD and other matters — of finding a scandal to use against the administration for political purposes. The principal lesson of Watergate, we are often told, was that no one is above the law. Judge Alito was moved to offer up a ritual obeisance to the maxim when he volunteered in his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee that “no person in this country, no matter how high or powerful, is above the law, and no person in this country is beneath the law.” Admirable sentiments, no doubt, yet self-evidently untrue. For those who administer the laws must be in some important sense above them, if only by wielding the responsibility for deciding which laws shall be administered in what circumstances. And when, brought low by scandal or the loss of power and popular or political support, those who administer the laws themselves become subject to them at last, it only means that someone else, like a special prosecutor or judge, has taken their place in the enviable position of being above the law.
Or, to put it another way, at some point in any system not based on the sheer exercise of force, trust is necessary It used to be thought that the executive occupied the principal place of trust as of right. Since Watergate, that assumption has changed. Now those who are entitled to ask us to trust them, and who are thus supposed to be above the law, are judges and the media themselves — which is why the Times thought itself privileged to publish classified information without paying any price for doing so, or being compelled to reveal the identity of the source who broke the law in order to supply it with that information. The same assumptions were at work in the debate over torture — which was not really about torture so much as who is entitled to decide what torture is. The outrage in the media over what the media naturally represented as the administration’s willingness to engage in the barbaric treatment of terror-suspects arose out of the assumption that only judges and the media could be trusted to decide when the frontier between permissible and civilized restraint and torture had been crossed.
There are obvious attractions for the media in the idea of reposing ultimate trust in a class of educated and enlightened mandarins like themselves rather than elected officials, but the anti-democratic impulse is exposed for what it is the moment there is a breach in the unanimity of opinion as to what educated and enlightened standards consist of. Hence the anxiety and hostility betrayed by Judge Alito’s questioners, and their eagerness to find some way of portraying him as being “outside the mainstream” — either in his willingness to defer to the executive or in his membership of a society, the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, some members of which may or may not have been racists. Whether they were or no, the case for regarding Judge Alito himself as one was exiguous to the point of non-existence, yet the Democrats overwhelmingly opposed him anyway because on the Supreme Court he would be a standing reproach to their most treasured belief, that decency and humanity speak with one voice and on behalf of the liberal media consensus. On the Court, he will not be so easy to ignore as those of us who toil in the ghettos of the right-wing press and vainly ask for a little respect from the “mainstream” — or the politicians who don’t even bother to ask anymore except, rather pathetically, on behalf of old ladies.