Tonight’s film was Romero (1989).

Earlier this year my eldest and I were talking about a paper due for her international politics class on the Middle East, the U. S. national interest, and grand strategy. She didn’t know where to start. I asked, what are our interests globally? Whose interests are they? How does the Middle East fit in context? What is the objective? How is why we do something different from what we say is why we do something? The professor had opened a can of worms asking about “strategy.”

What if post-war American foreign policy had been less concerned with Communist aggression and commercial imperialism? What would it have looked like? How would the world now differ in that case? Not how would things be better or worse, but how would they be different? Each decision opens some paths, closes others.

It was not necessary, for example, to choose France over the Viet Minh, but we did. It was not necessary to choose the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company over Mohammad Mosaddeq, but we did. Nor United Fruit over Árbenz, Batista over Castro, Pinochet over Allende, and so forth. But we did. Which would seem to indicate some sort of strategery—an excellent neologism, BTW—but perhaps not one in the national interest as much as in the interests of those who’ve held the reins of government.

It’s strange to even imagine how policy might change, much less what policies one might have, to benefit the nation as a whole. Inertia seems inevitable. It’s almost as if one needs some principle of behavior, some concept of what the public good is, that could guide government actors. Perhaps this could be a principle that might suggest what a just government is and what it can and should do. Perhaps this principle could suggest it might not be prudent or just to sell weapons to a country which primarily uses them to kill its own citizens, particularly those citizens who dare ask it to stop killing them.

Such a principle might even inform domestic policy. It might even make it relatively simple to decide the correct course of action when an agent of the state like, oh, I dunno, a police officer, murders someone on camera while several of his fellow officers stand idly by.

If only we knew what the right thing to do was. How will we ever know?

The integralists’ arguments might be more enticing if they themselves weren’t personally cheerleading the abuse of power. To put this another way, they would spit on Dorothy Day because she dared tell Cardinal Spellman he was wrong. Some are old enough that it is not inconceivable they approved of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero, for the same reasons that today they disapprove of protests against police brutality.

There is, yet again, a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. I have not followed all the details, being somewhat unconcerned with Church politics and feeling no need to pretend that priests are saints whose every word is that of God. But I’ve learned of the abuse from those who refer to Holy Mother Church and are, again, disillusioned, or, again, insistent that this corruption springs from the liberality of the Second Vatican Council. If only the Church were fundamentally, doctrinally sound — traditionally orthodox — these abuses would be unknown.

Unknown, certainly, for hidden, much as they have been until now, behind a veil of obedience and secrecy, surfacing only in comedy and rumor. Yet everybody knows.

What does not seem to occur to anyone is that the insistence on absolute, utter, unquestioning obedience is a necessary condition for the abuse of power on this scale. Whether expressed as sexual predation or not, the wolves want sheep. The wolf does not wear the sheep’s clothing, but a shepherd’s.

The question of the abuse of power is an age-old one–one I’m not equipped to summarize–and one we’ve not solved, though we attempt to do so with hierarchy. While hierarchy may limit the abuses, it systematizes them, and is ultimately concerned with the efficient exercise of power, not with limiting its harms.

It seems to me that the logic of hierarchy is such that only two conclusions are possible: 1) There can be no abuse because might makes right, or 2) Might cannot be right; it simply exists. In the case of the former, why complain or be concerned about anything, since this is surely what God has ordained? In the case of the latter, an argument from authority is always a fallacy.

It seems only appropriate that Kevin Spacey should play the lead in House of Cards. The recent outburst of sexual assault allegations following an article in the New York Times and Ronan Farrow‘s serial exposé of Harvey Weinstein has gone well beyond salacious gossip and appears to be resulting in substantive legal consequences as well as a, most likely more important, shift in the unwillingness to tolerate foul behavior. I say appears to be because we’ve yet to see the powerful face consequences. It’s good to see people speaking up for themselves and coming forward — finding their power as it were. I’ve some hope that generally acceptable behavior will change for the better, and ladies will no longer need to use their hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

A smattering of folks have been shocked to find gambling in Casablanca. Open secrets aren’t actually, y’know, secrets. They’re more like intentionally unenforced violations of the criminal code. The perpetrator is friends with the president or the district attorney — or the perpetrator is the president or the district attorney — or the victim’s silence is bought through fear or money or both. This ability of power to do what it wants isn’t an American disease. It’s essential to the nature of power. Power does because it can. A similar scandal is roiling Parliament — France isn’t being left out — but traditional abuse in Afghanistan has been traditional for centuries: The U. S. Army overlooks this, effectively sponsoring it, because “we need them.”

It does beg the question, however, why we overlook these sorts of things for so long while they are so well known. They hang out in society as jokes until they are inappropriate, unacceptable. Our understanding of the casting couch shifted from twittering about sleeping one’s way to the top to disgust at an abuse of power. How long were jokes about Catholic priests and altar boys circulating in Protestant circles before the spotlight fell on the truth? The gym coach at my high school would have girls sit on his lap. We’d yuk it up: “Sit on my lap and we’ll talk about the first thing that pops up.” Ha ha. So funny.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

One of my college roommates was a page in the House. We didn’t talk much. I seem to recall he had trouble with the school and left after one semester. In that time and place he fit the profile of a troubled youth. He told me a story once, of Congressional shenanigans involving vodka enemas and sexual encounters with Congressmen. Nothing shocking, I’m sure, except he was a minor and an employee. He’s dead now.

Forgiveness, it is thought, arose to maintain the social group and because revenge isn’t possible in some circumstances. This is necessary and generally works to maintain the group. But parasites exact a cost. They take advantage of the overwhelming desire to maintain social cohesion. We allow them to continue, because we think we need them. We think their abuse of power is somehow justified, in the greater interest of our tribe, that it’s not our business, or because, frankly, some of us don’t care. Luckily, the Forest Troop of baboons provides some evidence of what’s possible when abusers are cast into the outer darkness: everyone benefits.

What with the renewed interest in a Russian antagonist recently, it has become fashionable in some circles to dismiss criticism as use of a rhetorical device that has stood the long test of time: whataboutism.

Well, yes, tu quoque is a logical fallacy, and that would matter if public opinion were logical. But it is not, so it doesn’t. Whataboutism as a device works because it plays on the cognitive dissonance arising from the conflict between one’s ideals and hypocritical behavior. The case of Thomas Jefferson, for example, writing that all men have the right to liberty while keeping slaves. The United States is particularly susceptible to this style of argument because of our founding in the Enlightenment and because we pretend to be a shining example to the world, a City upon a Hill. How can we on the one hand pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all while simultaneously denying it in practice? How do we reconcile our behavior with our ideals?

Whataboutism works because it’s true.

Whataboutism may draw a false moral equivalence between parties, without concern for shades of grey, but a decent respect for the opinions of mankind does make it unseemly to criticize others of a crime, e.g. torture, when one engages in that crime. Or at least makes the accusation more than a little ironic. Well, isn’t that just the pot calling the kettle black! The U.N. Human Rights Council is likely tired of hearing this. It would be something else entirely if we admitted our flaws, acknowledged them, and actually held ourselves to at least the same, if not a more stringent, standard than we hold others. “Let he who is without sin…” and all that.

We certainly aren’t without sin. No one is. One might take a moment for self-reflection. Or not. Many so-called patriots prefer denial and cannot admit fault. Brush the dirt under the rug of history while claiming the dirt doesn’t exist and, even if it did, it’s not dirt but soil. We don’t air our dirty laundry in public. This is the “my country, right or wrong” crowd: the reduction of civil society and the clash of nations to a team sport, and, strangely enough, the active embrace of the core argument advanced by the current crop of whataboutism.

Masha Gessen, in “In Praise of Hypocrisy,” writes,

Fascists the world over have gained popularity by calling forth the idea that the world is rotten to the core. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described how fascism invites people to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy” and adopt the worldview that there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers. Hypocrisy can be aspirational: Political actors claim that they are motivated by ideals perhaps to a greater extent than they really are; shedding the mask of hypocrisy asserts that greed, vengeance and gratuitous cruelty aren’t wrong, but are legitimate motivations for political behavior.

[Vladimir Putin and Victor Orban] seem convinced that the entire world is driven solely by greed and hunger for power, and only the Western democracies continue to insist, hypocritically, that their politics are based on values and principles….

Despair at how the world is shaped by power imbalances, and embrace a blunt conception of the Good Life:

They err in understanding a description of how the world works as a prescription for the way it should. Still ideals beyond power give us something to strive for in this dog-eat-dog world where only the murderous survive. Isn’t it odd that those who care so little for the public opinion that they have no qualms looting their country for their own personal aggrandizement are among those who are the most assiduous perpetrators of fraud, indirection, and deceit in hiding their wealth and the sources of it? Isn’t it odd that heroes must hide their feet of clay?

Perhaps there’s something to these ideals after all.

Why do I hate compulsory schooling, do you ask?

There are two reasons. First, I’m against coercion on principle. But, more importantly, it makes mornings a living hell as I become a complicit actor in projecting State power–and an awful father.

So what did I teach Number Two Son this morning?

Did I teach him that one of the great joys of life is learning? No.

Did I guide him in disciplining himself? No.

I taught him that the Bigger and Stronger One gets what he wants through fear and force. Perhaps a more useful lesson, considering that power relationships pervade life, but not the lesson I wanted to teach.