Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Just About the Crux: The Importance of Institutions

"[When] the media, and the respectable intellectual community generally, are to serve their 'social purpose,' [the most important] matters...must be kept beyond the pale, remote from public awareness, and the massive evidence provided by the documentary record and evolving history must be consigned to dusty archives or marginal publications. We may speak in retrospect of blunders, misinterpretations, exaggeration of the Communist [or Islamic] threat, faulty assessments of national security, personal failings, even corruption and deceit on the part of leaders gone astray; but the study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored, apart from the fringe elements or a relatively obscure scholarly literature." Noam Chomsky, The essential Chomsky, p. 274.

This is just about as accurate as one can be regarding what passes for political analysis in the United States these days and for some time past. As I have pointed out for some time to students, again and again presidents engage in questionable and irresponsible behavior of the most egregious kind and we ask: What was wrong with Clinton, or Bush II, or Reagan, or LBJ, or JFK, or Nixon [especially Nixon]? We rarely ask: What is wrong with the presidency? "The study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored!" Indeed, because were we to question our institutions, we would enter a realm where we might have to rethink how we are in the world, that is, how we choose to be as a people. But, unless we are prepared to do this, and only a few of us are so prepared, we will find ourselves caught in that "vicious circle" we hear so much about.

Another aspect of this mindset should be commented upon, viz., the recurring wish that if only we elect the "right kind" of people, our troubles will be over. As my mother use to say: "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." If the problem or the problems lie in our institutions, then electing the "right kind" of people, whether you take the "right kind" to be "liberal" or "conservative," is less than decisive. Let me put this more bluntly: If we have become institutionally and in part thanks to the Constitution - which makes our president "the commander in chief" - a warlike people, then electing "sensitive" or "humanitarian" types president will not make us less warlike. As Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address, there is a "military-industrial complex" and its influence spreads throughout society, leaving even a person like Eisenhower, who was keenly aware of the what war did to individuals and to peoples, struggling, unsuccessfully ultimately, to keep the peace. That he failed is indicated by the fact, too often forgotten, that both candidates for president in 1960 ran against Ike and his conception of the presidency and the "military-industrial complex." Kennedy promised "to get the country moving again" and he did so, even if he did not live to see that it would be better had he paid more attention as to the direction of this movement than to motion simply. But isn't a prejudice in favor of motion built into the presidency itself? If you think not, just reread Alexander Hamilton's essays on the presidency in the Federalist. But "the study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored."

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