A National Government Makes Fools of Us All
August 16, 2013
Here is a story, a true story, from my past. Many, many years ago, one summer, when I and a friend had my house to ourselves, we began to make crank phone calls. You know: Call a store an ask, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” If they said “yes,” we said, “Well, you better let him out!” Hilarious, no?
Well, during this time we called people randomly and would chat. One was an older man who was shrewd enough to engage us. As a result we called him back more than once and eventually even gave him our names. Also, one day, we called the Metuchen police department and said, “There’s a dead body in a house on New York Ave.” I had called and, of course, could not suppress some laughter before I hung up. Well, as you have probably guessed already, soon the police were on to us, and probably because of the old man to whom we had given our names.
It was time for a meeting with the police and I knew I was dead, that my father would kill me after the police officer came to the house to address this matter. And the officer came, discussed how serious this was, how the police had gone up and down New York Ave., taking an entire day looking for a dead body! My father listened intently and, again, I knew my life was over. But then right after the officer left, my father turned to my mother and said, “Well, if that’s all the cops have to do in this town, we have too many cops.” And he walked away sans punishment for yours truly!
Why “confess” this now? Well, because it struck me recently – say 20 minutes ago – how the actions of the Metuchen police looked comic to my Dad, who was no slouch when it came to discipline, and would look comic or at least useless to others. And yet, isn’t this almost precisely the kind of actions our national government is engaging in in the name of “national security,” and no one is laughing? Why is that?
I am not sure but what I am sure of is that this is no accident. That is, what seems so dangerous when looked at “nationally” will often look comic or at least unthreatening when looked at “locally.” And I am also pretty sure one reason for this is that our national government is, for all practical purposes, cut off from any community. As a result of this disjunction, “context” is lacking and the national government can characterize or define activities as dangerous that if “contextualized” would not seem dangerous. Similarly, the national government can also characterize its own actions as indispensable when, if “contextualized,” would seem comic or even absurd. [Watch the Daily Show and the Colbert Report for illustrations of this phenomenon.]
Here is an illustration of this phenomenon. Shortly before I was hired to be the girl’s JV basketball coach at Radford High School in Radford, Virginia, where I was teaching at Radford University, there was a dispute about prayer in school. Apparently, some athletes wanted to pray before games and this became an issue, which the city’s attorney decided should not be defended in court and the prayers ended. Well, as I think about this, I cannot help but wonder: “What is the big deal? Let the students pray amongst themselves. Why should anyone care?”
Ah, but punch this issue up to the national level by bringing into this dispute the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and guess what happens? Yes, that’s right: This practice generates debates that are more often than not characterized by an intensity that appears, at least from a “common sense” or “contextualized” viewpoint, comical or idiosyncratic. How could some high school athletes saying prayers voluntarily before a sporting event affect anything of importance in our nation? Obviously, it cannot.
[Another admission: I knew nothing of this dispute when hired to coach the JV girls team and so, when they, the girls, asked me if they could pray before games, I said, “Yes. I will just step out of the room and you can do what you will.” Oops!]
It is then no accident that those who think that a pervasively powerful government is absolutely essential to the well-being of the nation are supporters of a national government precisely because such a government lacks any close connection with a community. And because such a community, such a “context” is necessary for seeing things as they actually are, this national government can and does characterize or define activities and its own actions in a way that serves to fortify it, whether such fortification is needed or not. And, strange as it may seem, this is labeled “realism” and those who advocate for such actions and for such a government are labeled “realists.”