Political Behavior

The following article is under submission. Reproduction in computer file and data bases is permitted for informational purposes only. Copyright (c) 1995 by J. Neil Schulman. All other rights reserved.


by J. Neil Schulman

I've now written four books -- two novels and two nonfiction -- which have as their themes the uses, abuses, and consequences of power.

My novel, Alongside Night, is a cautionary tale which shows what happens when arrogant politicians spend a country into bankruptcy; and what could happen if black-marketeers and libertarians combined forces to stop them.

My novel The Rainbow Cadenza shows how sacrificing the rights of powerless people to the powerful is the consequence of using "the greatest good for the greatest number" as the basis of public policy.

In Stopping Power: Why 70 Million Americans Own Guns, I presented evidence and arguments that widespread private ownership of firearms is a precondition for a free society: one which doesn't allow the sacrifice of individual rights to the desires of the powerful.

And in Self Control Not Gun Control, I examine the alternatives of having the power to control your own life as opposed to giving away that power so that others run it for you.

But, in all these thousands of words, I appear never to have focused on one aspect of power: the choice of whether one is civil only to people who have the power to punish you for incivility, or whether one is civil even to those who can't.

My friend, author and talk-show host Dennis Prager, writes in his latest book, Think A Second Time, that you can tell a person's character by how he treats people when rude treatment goes unpunished -- such as how someone treats a waitress.

Two decades ago when I first moved to Southern California, I couldn't afford a car, so I walked ... and was frequently cat-called by people in cars for no other reason than that they were on wheels and I was on foot. Like former civilizations where peasants walked and gentry were in carriages, Los Angeles is a culture where pedestrians are second-class citizens. The traffic laws may require cars to yield to them; but every once in a while drivers still feel they have to show pedestrians where they stand in the scheme of things.

Nowadays we speak of civilization without asking what "civil" behavior is. We speak of politics without asking whether it has anything to do with being polite.

Here is the secret to all politics, all civilization: civil or politic behavior is based on the premise that one is courteous to the set or class of those people who can hurt you or deny you something you want if you're not nice to them.

Spend a few minutes watching Congress on C-SPAN. Here are men and women exercising power. Polite use of titles and honorifics is standard procedure; even while calling another politician's arguments idiotic, one refers to "my esteemed colleague." The Chair gavels down members who dip below that standard with phrases like, "The member will not refer by name to members of the other house" or "The member will refrain from personal attacks."

But notice that these Congressional rules of polite behavior only apply to other powerful politicians. No one reprimanded Congressman Charles Schumer when during a hearing he called the National Rifle Association "nuts" and "flat-earthers" for defending their interpretation of the Second Amendment. Charles Schumer, being in Congress, exercises institutionalized power. The NRA, when it lobbies, merely attempts to influence the use of institutionalized power; the NRA, being a private organization, has no institutional power of its own. Charles Schumer knows that he represents a Congressional district whose residents are largely not NRA members; he knows that the NRA can't retaliate against him. Therefore, Charles Schumer can be as rude to the NRA as he likes.

Gun-rights activists often quote author Robert A. Heinlein's maxim that "An armed society is a polite society." That statement is historically true, but it's important to remember the context. When "gentlemen" carried swords, insulting a gentleman was done with the consequence of being challenged to a duel; discourtesy was punishable by the possibility of death. But unarmed peasants were treated as badly as "gentlemen" felt like treating them: harsh words, kicks, and cuffs on the head included.

I've noticed that writers in computer conferences quote "An armed society is a polite society" often in the same message that they rhetorically savage someone; more generally, it's quite common to find that individuals who are gentle in person become demons when they write on line and can vent their true feelings without consequence. And this follows from the nature of "virtual reality" where everyone is, if not anonymous, at least inconvenient to track down in the real world. The person you insult is as likely as not to be several thousand miles away.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article profanely cursing out writer Garry Wills (note: not George Will) for an article in the New York Review of Books where Wills was being blatantly dishonest about the intents of the framers of the Second Amendment. I received a number of angry Email messages chiding me for using street language in answering Garry Wills. I argued to my critics that I was being intentionally offensive to Garry Wills because his dishonesty did not merit a polite response -- but I was careful to be extra polite in my responses to those correspondents who were objecting to my behavior.

Am I being a hypocrite after telling Garry Wills what obscene acts he could perform on himself if he wanted my guns, and now asserting that polite behavior is the hallmark of civil society? Not at all. Garry Wills is part of the establishment and was writing his lies in an organ which caters to the established order. Garry Wills ordinarily wouldn't stoop to answering a writer like me in any event; not having his degrees and memberships, I'm not of his social class. I was insulting up, rather than insulting down: my impoliteness was an act of revolutionary defiance -- a commoner defying the power of an aristocrat.

I have often been accused of being arrogant or egotistic. That is undoubtedly true in that my characteristic response to rudeness, even from people with the power to give me carrots or sticks, is to accept nothing less than courtesy.

Let me give you a recent example.

There's an accomplished movie director whose most recent movie, which I thought was excellent, got trashed by the critics. I couldn't figure out why the movie got such nasty reviews, until I tried to do an interview with The Director for a weekly magazine I write for.

I first tried to get in touch with The Director, to set up the interview, by calling his agent's office. Someone in the agent's office suggested I write a letter to The Director. I did, including with the letter a copy of my positive review of the director's latest film, and a paperback copy of one of my novels -- to impress The Director that I wasn't some high-school kid trying to do an interview for his school paper.

You'd think that when a director gets mailed a positive review of a film which everyone else has trashed, someone who works for The Director might think, "Hey, this press person is doing something nice for us. Maybe we should be nice in return."

But that's not the way in works with Important People like The Director. A month went by, without any acknowledgement of my letter, or the review.

So I called The Director's agent's office again. This time, I was told to call The Director's publicist. I did. And, I got a call back, suggesting that I call The Director's assistant, whom I'll call "Tracy."

I called Tracy and got a machine. I left a message on Tracy's machine. Tracy called back and got my machine, leaving a message asking for a copy of my review, my editor's name and phone number, and a letter explaining what I wanted to interview The Director about, and telling me that The Director was very busy so I should tell her when I wanted to interview The Director by telephone.

I sent the fax of my lonely positive movie review. I gave her my editor's name and number. I also told her that I didn't want to interview The Director by phone because one gets a better interview in person.

Another week went by, with no response. So I called Tracy. And I found out what was on her mind. "I have to make sure that you're not going to try to talk to The Director about your novel when you meet him, " said Tracy. "We have to be very careful."

There it is. John Lennon had a bullet waiting for him. Michael Jackson has to worry about getting his pants sued off for having children sleep over. And The Director has to have an assistant make sure that interviewers are screened to make sure that they don't pitch projects to him.

I told The Director's assistant to forget the whole thing. I have too much pride to take that sort of treatment from anybody, no matter what I want from them.

What "Tracy" doesn't know is that I'd spoken to the editors at Playboy about doing the "Playboy Interview" with The Director. Playboy turned me down. It seems The Director just wasn't important enough and the Playboy editor was one of those who hated The Director's last picture, anyway.

When it comes to dissing people, power depends how high you are in the pecking order. I now suspect that The Director's last movie got such killer reviews because someone more "important" than a mere writer -- perhaps a Rupert Murdoch or a Ted Turner -- ran into Tracy, too ... and put out "the word."

Tracy assumed she could be disrespectful to me without consequence, because in the Hollywood culture in which she works, directors are more powerful than writers, and she works for a director. But even without my journalistic power to offer rewards and punishments -- if I was spiteful enough and lacking personal ethics I could easily trash Tracy's boss's next movie out of pique at being insulted by his staff -- Tracy misreads the value of writers to a director's career. No matter how talented a director is, without a good story, the movie will suck. The writer she insults today could be tomorrow's William Goldman or Melissa Mathison. And this is the reason I am prideful enough not to be insulted by the Tracy's of this world.

The motion picture industry is populated by people like Tracy who are extreme egalitarians -- liberal Democrats -- in their politics; but in their business practices they are as class conscious as Marie Antoinette. The industry even makes fun of its own worship of power in films such as LA Story where a popular restaurateur looks up the grosses of a producer's latest picture before deciding where to seat him; or The Player, where a film executive offers a writer a deal only because he thinks the writer is making anonymous death threats; when the writer implies to the executive that he's washed up and that the writer has a deal with the executive's successor, the executive murders him -- and ultimately gets away with it.

Political behavior is based on making rational calculations of other people's power and acting accordingly. What liberal Democrats, who are in theory egalitarians, don't understand is that the NRA is probably the most pro-egalitarian organization in the world. They accuse the NRA of wanting to make sure that everyone has a gun without realizing that the consequence of arming everyone is that everyone would have to be afraid of everyone else -- and courtesy, a consequence of fear, would follow. That is the dynamic Robert Heinlein was describing in his phrase, "An armed society is a polite society."

Of course, we could just start being nice to each other out of respect for each other's feelings, out of respect for each other's humanity. But it would take a God's-eye view to regard all of humanity as worthy of respect.

Idealists, usually of the left, wish us to be good to each other because we're supposed to be. Pragmatists, usually of the right, suggest that we will be polite to each other only if we have to be ... and point out that even religion suggests that God will punish us if we're rotten to each other.

All of human history, and my personal experience, suggests that the pragmatist is right and the secular idealist is living in a dream world.

But, especially at Christmas, when even liberals pretend to like each other, isn't there at least a place in our political calculations for our dreams of a world where there is goodwill from each of us to all of us?

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