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March 26, 2009

Learning to be Submissive

By: Aaron Datesman

My favorite part of being American is the crazy mirror which comes with the gig. When America gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror, somehow we see the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave! This is a fantastic trick, I can’t get over it.

This is the reason why I love Michael Moore’s movie Sicko so much. Do you remember his interview with the group of American expats in France? "In France, the government is afraid of the people, they're afraid of protests, they're afraid of reactions from the people, whereas in the States people are afraid of the government. They're afraid of acting up, they're afraid of protesting, they're afraid of getting out."

This hits the nail on the head in my opinion. The submission to authority in this culture is unbelievable. I wonder how it got to be this way?

Oh. Maybe this was how:

Sometime the following year, the Security Chief of the Chicago Black Panther Party, the William O’Neill who had told me that now I could see why I had to pick up the gun, was revealed to have been an FBI infiltrator who worked closely with the police. Probably he was the one who put the drug in Fred Hampton’s coffee that night, so that he would not be able to wake up when the police came to execute him.

The quote is from From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter, the autobiography of David Dellinger. I should have read this book half a lifetime ago. You should read it, too.

— Aaron Datesman

UPDATE BY JON: Right on, French people:

Bosses across the world are having to break bad news to employees as companies go under. But that can be a risky business in France, where some furious workers have taken to holding their managers hostage to demand better pay-offs.

In the latest outbreak of "bossnapping", workers at a pharmaceutical factory were Wednesday holding their boss in his office for a second day to force him to improve their redundancy packages.

No wonder Mitch McConnell is so terrified of the United States turning "into France."

Posted at March 26, 2009 10:18 PM

I guess nobody is scared of the French Government.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 27, 2009 12:34 AM

Wait, the French have never had a creepy and homicidal government-security apparatus? Are you sure?

I don't disagree with the basic observation, but I don't buy the suggested reason.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at March 27, 2009 01:43 AM

Well, there are a couple of different groups here: the underclass, the low middle-class, and above.

The 'above' people are usually satisfied enough and feel they have enough stake in the system not to make troubles of this sort; they have different means to advance their interests.

The underclass - in France they come out and riot; in the US they are subjected to repressions of Stalinist (or worse) proportions, perhaps half of the young men of the underclass are in jail. So that's that.

The low-middle-class - the difference is that in France they are organized, they have the unions. They come out and protest, they strike; nowadays they do bossnapping - and without any reprisal from the state:

In neither case did police intervene to free the managers, in a tacit recognition that such radical tactics were part of negotiations and that no harm would come to the bosses.

Imagine what would've happened in the US.

Once in a while in the US they (low-middle-class guys) snap and go postal. Read Going Postal by Mark Ames.

Posted by: abb1 at March 27, 2009 05:52 AM

Wait, the French have never had a creepy and homicidal government-security apparatus?

I would guess the most significant difference between France (and the rest of western Europe) and the US is World War II. The French saw with their own eyes how their elites eagerly collaborated with Nazi Germany after their country was occupied. It was only the weirdos and oddballs who fought back. So the standard jingoism and ultra-nationalism of, say, the French Bill O'Reillys rang a little hollow after that.

That's not all of it, though. The US had a comparatively quiescent population even before that. That may have to do with the existence of an officially-designated underclass in the form of black people, whom even the lowest of the lowly white people got to feel superior to. But who knows?

My parents actually gave me a copy of From Yale to Jail as a birthday present, which I thought was very sweet.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 27, 2009 08:11 AM

The genius of the mass-mediated society, from the viewpoint of the Bosses, is that you really don't have to kill very many people to make an impact. You just videotape selected killings (i.e., Kent State) and you keep on showing that, as a subtle reminder of what awaits the dissenters who have the temerity to complain...

Posted by: Woody at March 27, 2009 08:23 AM

I would guess the most significant difference between France (and the rest of western Europe) and the US is World War II.

Um, I think you want to go a leeetle bit further back than that. The important comparison is probably "The American Revolution" versus "The French Revolution." In one, a group of elites whipped up some populist frenzy and spurred on commoners to toss the old government aside. And then immediately setup a new government that put those very elites in charge in a fairly orderly manner. In the other, an angry mob rose up, tore the government apart, chopped of the heads of the elites and then spent the following decades in chaos with various governments rising into power and falling back out of it.

Is it any wonder the French government would be somewhat scared of their population? They actually have an object lesson in what happens when your elites overreach and push the populace too far. That's something we've never had in our history - we got close in the Great Depression, but the elites figured out what was coming and were able to block it by implementing incremental social programs.

Posted by: NonyNony at March 27, 2009 09:35 AM

The important comparison is probably "The American Revolution" versus "The French Revolution."

I think that's part of it. But it's not just France -- governments are more scared of the people in all of Europe. I think that's largely due to WW II. There's a difference between your elites being giant assholes and your elites being giant assholes who eagerly collaborate with Nazi Germany.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 27, 2009 09:54 AM

Another interesting book on the Panthers is Curtis Austin's Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, a history he wrote over a period of more than a decade of ferreting out documents and interviews.

Oddly enough, I became aware of it when I saw Austin speak at -- of all places -- the annual (George) McGovern Conference in South Dakota a couple of years back

Posted by: darrelplant at March 27, 2009 11:31 AM

Another great American myth bites the dust: of us as feisty, rugged individualists who keep their powder dry and view authority with a jaundiced eye, unlike the submissive denizens of Old Europe. It's obvious (to me, anyway) why we love this myth: because it makes us look tough, independent, and competent. (And I say that as a squirmy, wimpy collectivist who keeps his powder wet and isn't particularly eager to take on our National Security State.)

Posted by: Duncan at March 27, 2009 11:44 AM

You have to account for the history of a feudal society in Europe, that never existed in the U.S. of A.

But, yeah, the basic difference between the U.S. and France is that the French killed off all their rich parasites a little over 200 years ago....

Posted by: Solar Hero at March 27, 2009 12:01 PM

Events such as Shay's Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the labor unrest in 1877 and the Bonus Army argue against inherent submissiveness in the American population - not to mention the 60's movements. I agree with the comments in this thread (and I appreciate them!) except regarding the American Revolution. We're not taught about it, but there were a lot of class grudges settled during that period. I think I first learned about this in another book recently mentioned on TR, _Lies My Teacher Told Me_.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 27, 2009 12:09 PM

The French did what I've been advocating for a long time:

1: Kill everyone who's powerful
2: Kill everyone who tries to take #1's place
3: Repeat for a while

You'd be surprised how quickly dying tends to soften one's desire for power. The problem is, eventually the people get tired of all the blood, and eventually the power-hungry take back such positions. But at least it buys time.

I think Jefferson advocated a bloody revolution every once in a while. Shame.

Posted by: Salty at March 27, 2009 12:11 PM

Jefferson advocated a bloody revolution every once in a while

Jefferson was a big fan of France, which was one reason he and John Adams didn't get on all that well. (Yes, okay, until after both were out of power for some time.)

Posted by: NomadUK at March 27, 2009 02:42 PM

So the standard jingoism and ultra-nationalism rang a little hollow after that

I don't disagree with Jon very often, but: what the hell? What about the massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961?

Posted by: Nell at March 27, 2009 05:30 PM

While we're on Panther histories, I'll mention Elaine Brown's A Taste of Power. I've only ever been part of one book club, and that for a short period in the early 1990s. All the participants were women who'd been Central America solidarity activists for a long time.

Reading it crystallized a lot of my reservations about armed resistance in general and in U.S. organizing in particular; the book club revealed I hadn't been alone in my thoughts. It would be an interesting compare & contrast for those of you who've read the Austin book.

Posted by: Nell at March 27, 2009 05:51 PM

What about the massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961?

I'm sorry Nell, I don't believe in communist conspiracy theories.

Ha ha ha! But seriously, I'm not saying there wasn't tons of jingoism left in French society. But I think WW II is one reason why it had to be covered up so completely for so long. It wouldn't play that well for everyone to ask what Great French Patriot Maurice Papon had been doing back during the war.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 27, 2009 06:11 PM

I just call Pelosi @1-202-225-0100 and say REGULATE 2BIG2FAIL DOWN2 2LITTLE2CARE, and I say it everyday. Try it, put as much effort into it as it would take YOU to build JUST ONE guillotine.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 27, 2009 07:30 PM

I think the answer is the American straining for bourgeoisie respectability, based on wanting to eventually being invited to the club if we behave ourselves. You too can go to Harvard Law and eventually become president, if you study hard and don't express your anger.

The creepy and disgusting aspect of it is that, tacitly, buying into that ethos means you understand that the brief community-organizing episode was just a resume-polishing stint, and being OK with that.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at March 28, 2009 02:47 AM

I guess nobody is scared of the French Government.

But no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

By the way, Aaron, I didn't mean that Americans are "inherently submissive," only that in general we're a lot more submissive than we like to think. When you've got a national myth like that of the American as rugged individualist, it's because it's not the national reality. In fairness, I also have to mention the extreme ferocity with which American rebelliousness has been put down by our elites. As Noam Chomsky says, the democratic movements of 1960s American frightened our rulers, and they've been trying ever since to make sure the 60s don't happen again.

Which brings to mind another point: it isn't rugged individualists who bring about political and social change, but mass movements.

Posted by: Duncan at March 29, 2009 10:42 PM