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Lectures to the Chinese by Alfred De Grazia

PART ONE:  The Eight Bads

3. Exalting Idols

Your Book of Songs says,

King Wen is on high

Oh, he shines in Heaven!

Chinese political ideas, like our own ancient ones, began with the belief that goods rulers were closely related. For thousands of years, Oriental and Western philosophers have been pondering how the ruler might be divorced from heaven so that ordinary standards of right and wrong could be applied to him-or as we say, so that he can be made accountable and responsible. It is a fight against a social disease that can be called charismosis, the self-abasement before social idols. When Sun Yat-sen ushered in the modern Chinese state before World War. I, he imported the office of the secular and elective president. Then China was once more torn apart by revolution, civil wars, and invading imperialists. Finally came Mao.

And Mao has been made divine, but he is too wise to feel secure. As he wrote to his wife, "The higher a thing is blown up, the more seriously it is hurt at the fall." Who puffs him up? Mao explained: it is the rightists - the bureaucrats, the generals, the party bosses. It is then the turn of the leftists... the evangelists of revolution, the youth, the seekers of change without end.

And the people? ... they are torn between left and right. A group from Nanking broadcast in 1973: "How can we, people working at the basic-level units, understand the struggle if we are not aware that they are doing bad things at the upper level in the first place? Just as we failed to recognize the struggle between the two lines in the past, we will not be able to recognize it in the future." But these common people, although they cannot tell left from right, can worship the divine Mao.


How American this all is! Americans were in the beginning more Taoists than Maoists. For the book of Tao said 2,300 years ago,

A leader is best

When people hardly know that he exists,

Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,

Worse when people despise him.

Fail to honour people,

They fail to honour you;

But of a good leader, who talks little,

When his work is done, his aim fulfilled

They will all say, `We did it ourselves.'

The authors of the American Constitution argued about the dangers of creating a king and thought of a ruling committee, and then settled upon a presidency. They hoped that they were merely fashioning an executive who would see to it that the laws were faithfully administered. But some of them believed that they were laying the foundation for an elective monarch. The fact that the Constitution still survives in republican form after nearly two hundred years is a compliment to other American institutions and to the tenacity with which many Americans hold to republican ideals.

Many other Americans, however, are charisma-prone. When the Encyclopaedia Britannica offered its first completely new edition in forty years, at the moment in 1974 when the incumbent President was facing impeachment charges, it announced proudly: "Dedicated by permission to The President of the United States of America and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II."

The President's existence has become known in every household in America. When he appears before the Congress each year to give a report on the State of the Union, he is permitted to turn it into a mass meeting for his own political benefit instead of quietly informing the congressmen of his views on the past year's experiences of the nation. Friends, supporters, appointees, relatives, the Supreme Court, the secret service, and the television cameras crowd the meeting. The President selects only those matters to say that will bring him political benefits. (The rest he transmits in a longer written message.) Social pressure and politeness force everyone to stand and applaud as he enters and leaves. Thus a simple reporting task has been transmutated into both a monarchical assemblage and the main event of a communist party congress.

And when the President or a former President dies, a great artificial funeral ceremony is held. It is in charge of a special detachment of the Army. Special decorations, uniforms, carriages, and guns are in readiness. Special drills have been performed. Military bands play special marches and songs. Routes have been laid out; places in the procession are assigned. The family of the deceased is expected to condone and enjoy the honors. Manuals full of details are printed. The burial provided to the deceased must impress the people at large with the kingly (and military) nature of the President even if people have practically forgotten the man and even if he was no friend of military trappings.

The President is pushed up into his exalted position from the left and the right, like Mao, and the left and right in America represent roughly the same social forces as in China. The leftists are the enthusiasts of change, the enemies of bureaucratic rule, the imperialists, the press, and a crowd of ordinary people whose vision of politics is so dim that they can only perceive the figure of the President, rising out of the aggregate of lesser leaders.

The rightists are the multitude of officials and military men who are bent upon expanding their own offices and programs, the many businessmen and educators who are dependent upon expansive government programs of spending money in their areas, technocrats who have no appreciation of the human complexities of politics, and many paramilitary and insecure social formations who compose a crowd of ordinary people themselves but who resent the unruly formations of the evangelical crowd on the left.

One more element should be added, the two major political parties, which are not expressly admitted in China but do occur in the form of factions. Now, just as Liu Shao-chi and Lin Piao rose and fell, and no one can be sure who was "right" and who was "left," so in America the Democrats and the Republicans rise and fall and no one can be sure which is left and which is right.

Both parties are alternately for or against the President, and he is a member of one or the other party. And the parties take turns denouncing the growth of presidential power and glory. Still, they are so confused on the subject and so opportunistic that, if there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding the presidency, the difference is small.

It is simply a historical accident when Democrats rather than Republicans are denouncing the centralizing force of the presidency. Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Nixon are Presidents who represented thrusts for greater powers in the presidency. But others, who were less assertive-Jefferson, the first Johnson, Cleveland, Arthur, Truman, Hoover, and Eisenhower-also provoked accretions of power and glory to the next who will add the next stone to this grand edifice.

As you might expect, the growth of the presidency has been accompanied by a number of mental images of the person and office. These add up to a myth of the President, which, although it is overshadowed by the more splendid myth of Mao, contains nonetheless some remarkable features worthy of being called to your attention. Not all believe these features of the myth, and some believe in some but not in other features. Furthermore, many will be embarrassed if accused of holding such beliefs and will deny that they do, but still their actions deny their words.

The President is supposed to hold the country together. But America is held together by a complex set of beliefs and institutions, of which the presidency is only one.

The President is supposed to be a single person. But hundreds of staff members act in his name, often without his knowledge.

The President is given many more virtues than he or any man can possess. But most Presidents have been ordinary men with numerous defects as well as virtues. The defects are hidden by a grand conspiracy of the society unless they simply exploded.

The President is supposed to be burdened by inconceivably great responsibilities. But some Presidents take their responsibilities rather lightly and others very hard.

The President is supposed to represent the whole people while other politicians represent only some fraction of the whole. But Presidents often represent fractions and other politicians are more representative of the whole.

The President is supposed to have a plan in mind for the nation. But in reality the President is usually trapped in the resolution of whatever problems are thrust upon him at the moment.

The President is believed to be the commander in chief of the armed forces. But numerous congressmen know more about military affairs than he does and he is surrounded by a security staff that makes up his mind for him in most instances. When he acts on his own authority, he has made bad decisions as often as he has good ones.

The President is supposed to be head of his political party. He is, so long as he is President, but his party has many leaders, some of whom are independent of and even foes of the President.

The President's family is to be treated as a royal family. There is no question that this is so, and it promotes the prestige of the office regardless of the merits of the person.

The President is the source of news. Because news is defined as what the President does, it focuses upon his expressions, and more important news often does not get through to the people.

The President is supposed to be an effective and efficient administrator. The President has rarely any administrative ability and anyhow has little power to change the bureaucracy, which uses him to expand its own powers.

The president is believed to be the world's greatest leader. Since both Americans and others believe this, it is true in part, but both America and the world are often disillusioned by how little effective change a President can bring to the world.

The President is supposed to be privy to and spokesman of the national interest, the national security, the popular will. But these terms have little meaning except in the particular case, and tend more to deceive than to enlighten arguments over policies. The "national interest" is whatever those who command public opinion say it is.

I could go on with other features of the belief system that surrounds the President. The fact is that the presidency is a difficult office to control; it creates many hallucinations in public opinion; it attracts great powers into the central government; serves to keep them there; and helps to enlarge the great bureaucracy. It is all in all a dangerous institution for a free culture. I shall have to propose its reform when I arrive at a discussion of representation.


The beginnings of political deception are in self-deception, it was said earlier. No one knows "the typical American." No one can know him, for the typical American is a statistical concept, whereas individuals are unique. The typical is a kind that stands out. There are many types of Americans. Yet the moviemakers, the advertisers, the politicians, and indeed even the typical American go around telling everyone what the typical American is like.

Their portrayals are disasters. They set up false images. They make people sick with envy and self-doubts. They cause all sort of foolish decisions and judgments.

Americans lack a self-image. The movies, advertisements, and mass fiction often show the typical American as a husky, non-sweating, 6-foot, tanned white male freely attached (somehow) to a flossy-skirted, good-bad, never-aging ample-bosomed girl, leaping from car to horse, leaving a freely obtainable human-centered job whenever he feels like it for an even more freewheeling life of leisure, and knocking bad people all over the place at home and abroad. He earns a lot, has sleek full hair, knows by birth as much as any professor ever does, never grows old, never loses a battle.

Of course, the mass media have to deal with different models. So there is an equally untypical and mythical "housewife,' "child," "family," "church congregation," "shopkeeper," "family doctor," "astronaut," and so on. It is a world of mythical creatures, whose deceptiveness would have more serious effects if freedom of expression did not permit special artists and audience of the social fringes to portray other vision, and even truths, about the population.

One hundred years after the birth of scientific surveys of the traits of populations, we still lack a respectable and complete portrait of the American people as they really are, with all of their averages, typicalities, medians, deciles, and deviant percentages.

The national census is laughable in this grave regard. When a first-grade teacher is asked, "Teacher, what is an American?" she is bound to be nonplused. The least she should have is a wall of pictures of a representative sample of fifteen hundred Americans. Then she could point to it and say, "Judge for yourself."

The average American is an overweight, undernourished, unisexual octoroon at least one of whose grandparents was born abroad. This average person grows to be an adult 5 feet, 5 inches tall; is twenty-eight years old; lives in a partially ruined and ugly city; watches television four hours a day; drinks 128 quarts of alcoholic beverages per year; does not exercise except when forced to; is an occasional delinquent; has occasional mental disorders; and has been injured in an auto accident. Most people work at clerical tasks or in kitchens. After all deductions, about $40 per person comes home weekly. The average American has $300 in savings, owns part of an auto and part of his dwelling place, is "a little cog in a big machine" at work, resides in a make-believe center of population in east central Illinois when not driving a motorcar, has one child around the house, and traces ancestry to a geographical center somewhere near the Genoa of Christopher Columbus. The average American passes through twelve years of schooling but rarely cracks a book, pays one third of income received in taxes to government, has almost no interest in public affairs, has a straight nose, and possesses contradictroy moral standards. The average American believed until recently that the average American was making great progress and that the world loved him for his success.

This is a literal caricature of the most typical American. It divides all the population by the numbers having whatever quality is selected to obtain an average. Thus, dividing the population by the total alcoholic beverages consumed in 1972 gives 128 quarts per person. Again, since 13 per cent of the population is black, the average American becomes an octoroon, that is, one-eight black. Then since half the population is variously male and half variously female, the statistical average is unisexual. It is doubtful that more than a dozen Americans are average, that is, have all of these characteristics.

Actually there is something to be said for this portrayal. It exposes the perils of averages and images. It tells more about America than most people are told by their teachers and leaders. It is as close to the typical as the usual types that are pulled out. It reminds you that women, too, are Americans. It is more helpful in deciding what to do with the country than are the escapist visions of the films and advertisers or the flattering images purveyed by the politicians and press. Americans would be much better off if they held this image of themselves and their leaders rather than some of the images that are more common.

Flattering a person is dangerous. Flattery of the whole people is not, however, 210 million times as dangerous. Luckily most people do not listen, and a lot believe flattery is bunk. However, the typical American likes to be flattered in all of his or her warped images. So the process will go on endlessly. As a vacation from this atmosphere, it is well to go to Britain, Italy, Japan, and a few other countries where the level of mass self-adoration is lower.


Americans cling to the life raft of equality. The desperation of their attachment make this formless craft loom up like an ocean liner. They feel that, if they cannot keep a hand on the raft, they will be swept away to become the forgotten poor, the victims of power.

On the other hand, they are eager to clamber aboard the principle of merit, which says, "Position and success should go to the hardest-working, the best-trained, the most responsible."

The desire to "share everything with everybody" conflicts with the desire to "get a job done cheaply and well." The desire, also, to share an identity and life-style among everyone conflicts with the notions of uniqueness and pluralism.

The most surprising contrasting effects come out of the doctrine that "everyone should have equal opportunity," for the practice of this belief can logically result only in a rule by the meritorious colored by the characteristics of those who make it to the top.

Is there no way out of this dilemma? If men were angles, upon arriving at the top they would give everything back that they had acquired on the way up-power, wealth, and prestige. But then there would be point to their effort; they would simply have caused great competition and hard feelings to no good end except the flush of victory.

Furthermore, unless the meritorious engaged in good practices, there would be no use generally in the principle of merit. So the doctrine of equal opportunity must presume that, once on top, the meritorious would engage in egalitarian distributative practices. Yet these angels cannot fly with their feet on the ground. If their merit has carried them any distance from "the equals," and if they have any capacity to "distribute things equally," then they are definitely not equal nor can they behave equally.

At this stage of discussion, one is tempted to regard the doctrine of equality as an unmitigated disaster, an invitation to a principal cause of the prevalent political schizophrenia of Americans. It leads directly to some of the worst aspects of bureaucracy, where huge numbers of people have "rights to jobs" and are promptly deprived of all other rights as they are formed into job battalions. It leads even more directly to popular dictatorships where, no one trusting anyone else with one's rights, all consign them to a ruler who is elevated to dizzying heights above the mass of equals.

Mindlessness, bureaucracy, dictatorship-all produced partly by the doctrine of equality! Is no real "equality" produced by the doctrine? Here one must admit the truth. The demand for equality has such good effects that whether equality is really produced is not imperative.

The demand for equality leads people out of slavery, and if it puts them on the road to another kind of slavery, there is an interval of freedom where many refreshing events are possible.

Egalitarianism poses fundamental challenges to all regimes. It asks, for example, "Why if you up there need not account for your time and your efficiency and your wealth and your wisdom, must I account for mine?" These challenges are vital, for no regime will account for itself unless it is accountable to others.

The egalitarian doctrine implicit in the Enlightenment of pre-revolutionary France and explicit in the destruction of the ancien regime produced intellectual and artistic explosions, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the French bureaucracy. The French soldiers who died on the march to and from Moscow in 1812 paid the supreme penalty for their egalitarian folly. The same might be said for the Union soldiers of the American Civil War who marched and died against slavery.

But perhaps more foolish were the Russian soldiers who died for the Czar and the Confederate soldiers who died for the plantation oligarchs. And it is not useful here to write of the hundreds of repetitions of these events down to the present day in all their ramification through the jungles of Vietnam and the universities of Japan.

The world did change from all this marching and dying. It gained a potential that has yet to be realized. The potential was an effect of the doctrine of equality. Egalitarianism has defined the present world system. It permeates all mental and social system. If the structure of a regime is not built around an endoskeleton of equality the regime must be constrained to use equality as an exoskeleton. It holds power, that is, to achieve equality or to oppose it.

Having said all this concerning the place of the doctrine of equality in politics, it should be easy to justify the idea of sharing, because it turns out to be something close to "positive equality." However, now is not the time to explain how sharing is done, for that is one of the eight goods.


A fourth major myth of Americans is not human at all. It is the Constitution. The definition of the Constitution begins, like that of the President and the typical American, in matter-of-fact language. It is the basic law of the land, setting, forth the major offices of government and how they shall be filled, and declaring their powers and limits. It is by entering the brief passages of this document that you learn that the U.S.A. is a federal republic whose states have many independent powers of taxation, spending, and policing their peoples. There too you learn that the government is looked upon as a social contract in which all citizens take part; it is a popular and representative government. The branches of the government are three-the executive (which I continually harp upon as the source of much of the coercive force in the society.), the congressional or legislative, and the judicial. These cooperate with and yet control each other. A number of clauses in the Constitution indicate a concern for free enterprise, business instituted and conducted outside of the government-capitalism!

The American constitution, despite the wordiness of recent amendments, is among the world's shortest. It would be foolish to claim to understand the Constitution as it is written. It is considerably more specific than the words of Mao, but merely the citations and one sentence of description of all the court cases that have changed the meanings of its words would consume over a thousand printed pages. Every year, old meanings are suppressed and new meanings entered into the law-books. The instrument for this endless process of perennial change is the judicial branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, a body of nine persons appointed for life as openings occur, by the President with the approval of a majority of the Senate.

The Constitution changes in other ways. Important institutions have grown up and are accepted into it. For instance, political parties were not mentioned by the Constitution but evolved as independent voluntary associations with considerable powers. Other kinds of constitutional change happened because nobody challenged them. Thus a number of Presidents have sent warring expeditions into foreign countries without the consent of Congress. Since Congress did not staunchly oppose them, the practice has continued and even enlarged to full-scale war as in Vietnam.

Again, public consensus has permitted changes. The Tenth Amendment was supposed originally to have limited strictly the extent of the federal government's intervention in local and private affairs. But it was neglected for many years; Congress, the President, and the courts avoided its stern language; and it remains to be seen whether this definite bar to centralization can be revived before the government becomes fully unitary, centralized, and socialized.

The Constitution will be two hundred years old in 1987. It is idolized by most Americans. It is something like the Bible to Christians, or the teachings of Confucius to Chinese until recently. You may regard the Americans as backward for worshiping a document. The Constitution is embedded in American thought and practice. Most Americans follow its ideas even though they remember few of its clauses, because the whole culture is permeated by it. It symbolizes the treasured idea of a government by rule of law as opposed to government by the unlimited and capricious will of personalities. As our thousands of officials annually take office, they happily swear allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, and to the state's as well, if they are taking up state office.

Is the Constitution a conservative or radical idol? It certainly helps to stabilize the vast country and hold it together. With all of its judicial interpretations included, it frames the ways in which many political problems have to be solved, bringing each problem partly out of the clouds of personalities and propaganda to where it can be seen and handled. It almost automatically tells people-"If you want to do this, you will have to think of that and that and that." It makes people specific: "What do you want? Put it down exactly so that we can see if it conforms to the model of the government." These are important virtues in politics.

Take the question of getting rid of a President or other high official, such as a congressman or judge or head of a department. They are all covered by the rules of the Constitution and the laws enacted in accord with it. If they commit an ordinary crime, they can be tried in an ordinary court and, if convicted, punished. For both ordinary crimes and political crimes, such as the abuse of their powers under the Constitution, they may also be impeached by a majority vote of the House of Representatives and passed over to the Senate for their impeachment trial. Whence, if convicted by the votes of two thirds of the Senate, they are removed from office. In the case of a President, the Constitution thus limits his tenure first by the need for election, then possibly by reelection for only one additional term of four years, but then by special means to detect serious physical or mental disabilities and to remove him for that, and finally by means of impeachment and conviction for ordinary and political crimes.

Thus Americans have tried to solve the nearly unsolvable problem of government, the succession to the highest office. Granted that a fixed term is desirable, in order to give a President a chance to demonstrate his prowess, and granted the need to preserve the independence of both the executive and legislative branch, then the system of a fixed term modified only when serious disabilities and abuses occur has been a great achievement.

People actually claimed it was too easy to impeach President Nixon. Considering the many allegations of some substance, this is quite the contrary of fact. If spread around the capitals of parliamentary government, there would have been more than enough to bring down all of their prime ministers.

Contrary to most opinion, which views the independence of the executive branch from the legislative as the good of the fixed term, I hold that executive independence is good as a protection of the legislative branch against take-over by the chief executive and his followers. Giving the right to elect and remove the President to the Congress would result not in the subservience of the presidency to Congress, but in the control of Congress by the presidency. For then all the idolatry of the President would concentrate upon promoting the elections of a Congress that would be under the mandate of the President.

The President's faction in Congress is already a threat to its independence, so strong are the tides pulling for the executive force in America. The myth and idolatry of the President are already tending to prevent the impeachment process from being pursued as normal legal means of correcting disturbances in the executive that should not await the next election or be construed as being corrected merely by an election. Impeachment is a remedy with its won risks and benefits.

I have little patience with talk of conservatism or radicalism. Radical surgery is often the only way to conserve a body; standing fast is often the only way to achieve a radical goal. The Constitution lets itself be changed little or much. It has served a country whose farm population was in the great majority and now a nation whose total farm population equals only the population of the city of greater Chicago. It tends to promote legalism; it does not fend off all assaults upon a free culture; it depends upon a disciplined people. Still, by all odds, it is a good myth, a beneficent idol, a lucky dragon.


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