Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1985


Questions and Symbols

By Butler D. Shaffer


In a recent article in a national magazine, the writer heaped praise on Chrysler president Lee Iacocca who, it was suggested, symbolized an America that’s finally regained its confidence. Iacocca was even portrayed as “the sex symbol of America’s recovery.” Another article in the same publication hailed the Chrysler experience as “the miracle in Detroit.”

The first writer went so far as to draw inspiration from the resurgence of patriotism and pro-military attitudes of many Americans. He saw the invasion of Grenada, for instance—as well as the space shuttle program and the refurbishment of the battleship “New Jersey”—as important symbols. He added that “instead of being ashamed at taking an active role in geopolitics, American citizens seem almost delighted at projections of military power.

If it is true that American people are drawing “confidence” from the most powerful military force in history ganging up on a fly-speck island of 100,000 people, as well as from the practice of government forcing taxpayers to provide loan guarantees to bail business firms out of the consequences of their faulty judgements, then I hold out little hope for this country.

If Americans can find no greater expression of greatness than the ability to bully helpless nations; if “the miracle” of “America’s recovery” is to be found in funding business enterprises through raids on taxpayers’ a1ready beleaguered paychecks, we are dealing from bankrupt basic assumptions.

I have never understood the mentality—most of which seems to have been fashioned in the era of the great depression and World War Il—that suggests there is some social value in identifying ourselves with institutions, particularly the nation-state, business enterprises, or one of the Judeo-Christian religions. What this attitude really amounts to—whether its proponents recognize it or not—is the subordination of human lives to the alleged greater purposes of political. economic, religious, and other social institutions. The hidden premise is that the established order is—or ought to be—paramount; that we ought to be willing to sacrifice our lives, our children, and our material resources in service to these institutional authorities.

In furtherance of institutionally-directed life-styles, we are encouraged to become unthinkingly obedient, to take our subservience as a matter of faith, and to ask no questions. If one sifts through press releases from the political and religious organizations that make up the “conservative” movement in America, one finds a consistent attack upon anything that represents a questioning of the existing social order.

It is no coincidence that those who attach themselves so firmly to the walls of established institutions tend to be critical of the “sciences” and supportive of “religions.” Organized religions. after all, demand that their followers accept the legitimacy of their rule as a matter of faith; while science, on the other hand, represents the processes of continuing doubt, continuing inquiry. endless questioning.

It is my general impression that people who identify themselves strongly with existing institutional interests also tend to be very critical of free inquiry. This is not true in every instance, but I find a common thread running through much “conservative” rhetoric in America: religious faith is to be preferred over scientific evidence; critical investigative news-reportinq by the press is to be deplored; revisionist historians and others who openly question and criticize institutional persuasions tend to look back upon the atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s as an unpleasant, negative experience. Those who find value in a “return” to flag-waving patriotism and jingoistic militarism, unsubtly damn the 60s.

Having graduated from law school in 1961, I can hardly be considered a child of the sixties. Still, I did go through my own questioning of political and social practices in the early years of that decade, and even taught for awhile at a school that helped others to challenge their traditional thinking.

From my own limited perspective. I found the ’60s a very important period, not only for America but for the rest of mankind. It was an era of profound questioning, and questions—not institutionally certified answers—are what distinguish responsible, peaceful, and productive persons from unprincipled savages.

For flag-wavers who look for symbols of national courage, what could be more inspiring than the presence of young men—still in their teens—standing up to omnipotent power of the world’s greatest war-making machine and saying “Hell no we won’t go!”? That kind of courage offers greater hope for our society than the sight of that same powerful nation-state’s military forces attacking a handful of harmless peasants on a postage-stamp island in the Caribbean.

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