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Sled dogs waiting patiently

So, I am enjoying the Alaska Native Studies conference in Fairbanks last weekend, and one of the many things that keeps catching my attention is a persistent use of outside authority for a kind of whipping boy. I hear about how ‘the media’ portrays Alaska natives and minorities i general. I hear complaints about The Federal Government, academia, and ‘the system’ in general. Different people have thought these phrases through to different degrees, so the quality of the references vary from the completely vacuous posture to reasonably well defined concerns.

Meh, nothing particularly new under the sun (unless it’s a rather Northy start for the Iditarod which began right in front of the Hotel I was staying at this year, …a couple hours after I flew out. …dammit!) I haven’t attended many academic conferences in the last decade or so, but this is hardly new to me. I just have to cast my mind back a bit to remember how often I used to hear this theme in the old days of my grad work.

…or I could just remember the last time I visited more conservative friends and family down South. They too like to complain about the Federal Government. They too like to complain about academia. (Oh yes they do!) And they too can sometimes be heard to talk disparagingly of something called ‘the system.’

I am keenly aware of the fact that these groups often argue for radically different political goals, but I am rather struck by the fact that they do so using remarkably similar narratives. Each seems rather consistently to present themselves as countering the effects of some overarching authority that resides somewhere out there, so to speak. But this is hardly unusual. In America, at least, most people seem to frame their politics in populist terms. That includes the most well-funded of incumbent political candidates and their supporters. It also includes people arguing for the clear and forceful exercise of political authority just as it includes those arguing against such authority, and it includes all manner of politics falling somewhere in between. It isn’t just that we can’t always tell who is exercising authority and who is objecting to it. What strikes me about this is the fact that the common preference lies on the down-side of the equation. It seems as though everyone wants to be the underdog, and you could take a lantern about in the day looking for someone who will happily cop to playing the man to all his low-brow critics.

In the culture wars lefties typically presented themselves as countering long-term abuse of authority by privileged parties; their right wing opponents bash PC politics and the liberal establishment that tells them what to do and what to say. Evangelical Christians complain of persecution in schools and other government institutions even as secularists fight against believer-bias in those same institutions. And how many religions count oppression somewhere in their founding narratives? (Probably as many as appear in each others’ oppression narratives, I should think.) Climate scientists struggle against well-funded corporations to counter the effects of powers both political and mechanical even as climate skeptics buck the authority of a plot to spread government authority. Some folks will burn a flag to protest the authority of government. Others will wave it to flaunt their patriotism in the face of ‘elitists’ who don’t like it. Even Hollywood actors sneer at the culture of Hollywood, and the educational reformers who crash upon the curriculum in waves of paperwork and conference panels always seem to see themselves as flying in the face of some institutional conventions. Retention and Persistence specialists complain about professor-sages who just want to pronounce wisdom to their students from a lectern and those same professors complain of reformers using administrative leverage to force dubious changes and undermine academic freedom. Advocates of gay marriage often appeal to personal freedom even as its opponents appeal to personal freedom to disregard such marriages.

Indie this and Indie that! (Just cross-apply this theme to movies, music, fashion designers, writers, and Hell, most likely fish-tank designers at this point. I wonder if guppies complain of pretentious betas while zebra fish moan about the abuse of authority of neon tetras.)

…okay, the fish tank bit was probably a bit of a stretch, but hey I’m trying to buck a system here!

Some of these narratives are more authentic than others, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all these agendas are really of equal value, but I am interested in the way so many different political views (some of them diametrically opposed) seem to vie for the moral low-ground. It really is fascinating to see just how ubiquitous the underdog status seems to be in contemporary political rhetoric. Sure, those with political power will exercise it, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who frames a political agenda in terms of a straight forward claim to authority and an equally straight forward intention to use it. Even those with tremendous power seem to present their exercise of that authority to some other regime at power.

When at last we meet the Man so to speak, he usually tells us that he is new to the job and only there to finally undue the damage done by the real Man, the guy with all the power who is only just out of office (and probably lurking somewhere nearby). That other man, the real man, is the real bastard. He has power even when he doesn’t, and it’s his abuse of that power that necessitates the use of power by real people in charge of real institutions.

…who always seem to be underdogs despite themselves.

I sometimes wonder at this vacuum into which all authority seems to escape. Is it purely a function of rhetoric? To listen to folks, the real power always seems to lie somewhere else. And yet it must really exist or all this rhetoric is hot air. And of course we do encounter power and authority in our daily lives, but its presence is almost always akin to a force of nature. It is a fact with which we must contend even if we cannot find a cogent case for it. And when one looks for that case, so often we find only a case against some other use of power.

Could it be that all this obligatory underdogging be a product of cognitive bias? Is it easier to see authority in others and damned hard to feel the power of authority when it’s in your own hands? There is often (perhaps always) a little bluff in the exercise of authority, a little sense that its successful use depends on the willingness of others to accept it.

I once TAed for a professor who liked to mock his own authority. The students were not reassured by his self-deprecating humor. He might have hoped to communicate that he didn’t take himself too seriously, but what his students heard was that he didn’t take his position seriously, and most particularly, that he didn’t take seriously the responsibilities of that position and the limitations of his authority. This was underdog failure at its finest and most cringe-worthy.

And I suppose this is what bothers me the most about it all. I can’t help but see in the collective impact of all this underdogging something a bit like the students saw in that professor a marked inability to grapple with the authority that people actually do have and very clearly will use. We can’t all be under-doggier than the next guy. Or if we can, then perhaps it says something rather sad and ironic about the value of low-brow politics. For one reason or another, it is often more effective to position oneself as the underdog than the authority.

And if you can get by with wielding authority while pretending to be that underdog?

Well, ain’t that just the cat’s pajamas!