All rising to great place is by a winding star; and if there be factions, it is good to side a man's self, whilst he is in the rising, and to balance himself when he is placed. – Francis Bacon
LI’s dao is sarcasm. First comes the irony, then comes the insight. So, yesterday, we appended a ps to our post on Iran, recommending that the best way to influence policy at the moment is through insinuation and flattery at the Bush court. Thus, strategically, those who want to avoid bombing Iran in this country should try to find ways to make this seem like Bush’s own thought, the logical conclusion of his perfectly brilliant Middle Eastern policy. We meant this satirically – for there is nothing that still awakens the latent Puritan in the American character as flattery, and we have a Puritan in the woodpile as well as anybody else. But as soon as we had written it, a piece of the puzzle, as it were, dropped in place. For if – as we think is true – in shedding the Constitution (the torture debates being only one moment in the long process of creating a monarchical and hateful executive, for which all succeeding generations will, of course, view us, each and every one of us, as some of the vilest creatures who ever crawled upon the face of the earth), the Federal government has become more and more like a court society, then one should expect that the manners of a court society will emerge. And court societies are run far more than historians like to admit on flattery.
Since flattery is so inimical to republican virtue, or to a political culture that is, at least formally, constituted by vote, that it is only viewed from the angle of the moralist. That angle suggests that flattery is a character fault, or two character faults: servility, on the part of the flatterer, and gullibility or vanity, on the part of the flattered. This character analysis has loomed so large that there is not, properly, a functionalist account of flattery. Flattery doesn’t have a chapter in books on political science, or “theology.” However, I suspect that this severely underestimates flattery. As the U.S. becomes your usual bloated and debt ridden empire, with a Fortune 500 of billionaire knaves lording it over a mass of ignorant and credulous peasants with credit cards, Godfearing Snopeses who drink away their Sundays (while newspapers love to report on how 99 percent of Americans love God and Jesus Christ and believe the world was created 10,000 years ago, they report much less on the fact that only about a third of Americans attend church every Sunday), the republican virtue of “choosing” our representatives slowly transforms into something else – the democratization of flattery (to speak in the cant of Thomas Friedman). We are given the pleasant role of flattering those who are going to rule us anyway. As election time draws near, you can pretend to be your favorite tv pundit and “support” a candidate. It is like being near greatness!
There is an excellent text for exploring the way flattery works in court society: Francis Bacon’s letters. Bacon crawled on his stomach of his own free will so much that it was almost like he had snake genes. But he was, also, a genius. And occasionally sparks of that genius irked his betters. The man he dedicated the Essays to, Lord Buckingham, was a favorite of King James and of his son, Charles. And a more arrogant man never walked England’s green and pleasant land. Sometimes, Bacon would get caught between Buckingham and James on some issue that Bacon thought was relievingly foreign to their concerns – something where he could make his own judgment. Rather like some EPA peon thinking he could get away with actually enforcing a law against some heinous pollutant. “Surely,” the peon thinks, “Dick Cheney won’t come down on me if I send this letter to X company asking them, in the politest terms, to please, please refrain from pouring mercury into the drinking water of Los Angeles.” Or some such naïve, twittish gesture. Down comes the iron fist, and out goes our peon, to be re-educated on K street in the wiles of the D.C. court and to return, perhaps under a blessed Democrat, to advance further, by scrapping and corruption, up the ladder until someday he can retire into some businessy sinecure.
More on Bacon, Coke, and the business of gold and silver thread in a further post.