The Bully(ing) Pulpit

01/31/2011 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The society that invented and then perfected the soft sell has shifted its marketing strategy. No more smiling faces! No more Mr. Nice Guy! The old ways have been revealed as just that -- soft! Why even pretend to listen, to suggest what your product can do for others, when you are calling the shots. So that's what you tell them: no deals! Take it (and say thank you), or face the consequences... and believe me, there are consequences.

America has become a bullying society, and proudly so. The neocons ridicule the ambiguous Obama efforts at diplomacy as a sissified foreign policy even as he defers to the global military state, and can't wait to regain the nation's bully-ing pulpit. In the meantime, it is no secret that, as a recent Zogby report noted, in "offices nationwide, managers belittle, isolate, intimidate, and sabotage employees." The entire national school culture, hardly an enclave in the past for nurturing individuality and expression, has with No Child Left Behind, and now Obama's Race to the Top, operationalized the top-down intimidation of principals, teachers, and students to perform on cue.

"My way or the highway" has been promoted from bumper sticker to the national motto. Those who don't comply are pushed out, their legal and institutional protections dismantled, and their opposition demeaned as the pathetic cries the weak always sputter to the strong.

Watching just recently a C-SPAN symposium sponsored by the staunchly conservative journal New Criterion, it became crystal clear. In a tough world, we were told, the tough will prevail -- so long as they act tough. Acknowledging any limits on one's conduct at home or abroad is to be a sap, to let would-be tough guys (as opposed to real tough guys) play you. Are you kidding? Anything that interferes with maximum retribution and taking what's yours --like benevolence or equity -- is a call to weakness. And what's "yours"? -- whatever real tough guys can get.

The idolization of power is evident in the very way bullying is typically framed. For the most part, those on top, the global corporations and adventurous military, don't bully -- they clarify. They identify what the rules are, and who is to make sure they are efficiently enforced. It is unions, community organizations, workers and civil rights groups, those who don't like the shake, who are trying to push weight (they don't have) around. It is the world-wide Muslim conspiracy, which really means your neighbors who attend the mosque down the street, who are trying to take America over one shish-kabob stand at a time, and who deserve to be harassed, legally prosecuted, vilified, and deported.

Right-wing talk radio is built on ferreting out the bullies in our midst, identifying and hounding at least one member of the International Bully Conspiracy in every three-hour segment. The proud list usually includes terrifying examples of citizens who have spoken out against the shoddy practices of the powerful: Frances Fox Piven, an eminent progressive who has been repeatedly smeared by Glenn Beck for asserting the cause of the dispossessed; Adam Bessie, a professor who had the temerity to insist that corporate conservatives and their epigones had commandeered without full disclosure the language of educational reform to push a regime of mindless discipline and compliance in the schools; the list goes on and on.

Corporate and economic elites amass record profits and government handouts in a virulent economic downturn as they impose a regime of scarce jobs, lower pay, reduced distribution, and diminished services on the poor and a declining middle-class. No one fights back, for as the New York Times recently reported, the capacity of those seeking to resist corporate dominance has been sharply eroded by corporate dominance, and god forbid they should be bullies. The distribution of power, in other words, can no longer be discussed, except to assume that those with a great deal deserve - or will get, whether you like it or not - more, and the rest, as explained by their well placed and well funded advocates, will accommodate.

How did the bully's logic become justice? How did the military card and the power play become the strategy first, last and always? Thucydides in his classic Peloponnesian Wars relates a dialogue between the Athenians and the residents of the island of Melos, whose beleaguered people encircled by the Athenian fleet pled for fair treatment, only to be superciliously spurned - and then annihilated. For the historian, this was the emblematic example of a one-time democracy that had lost its way, that had been taken in by its press clippings, that in assuming that its unrivaled power made it great forgot that its greatness was the source of its preeminence.

Gore Vidal once wrote that authoritarianism would come to the U.S. with a smiling face. That was in the good old days of soft shoe Reaganism. But he did not count on the multiplication of enemies, internal and external (and they are everywhere), who require sterner handling than democracy can muster. This is no time to appease ____(fill in the blank - and think of Hitler). Conservatives believe that mobilizing the scapegoating impulse is a risk-free way to stir a victimized and powerless public to vent their rage at critics of the nation's moral decline. Once activated, however, this impulse is hard to control. In the short-run it will take guidance in identifying enemies, but as critics recede (for who, finally, will stand up), the appetite must still be fed. An old and sad story, we know how it ends.

Yet the culture of bullying has infected us all. Liberals are nearly as convinced as conservatives that this is the way to get things done, seemingly unaware of their complicity in the moral unraveling of society. They are only too willing to exploit the systematic accumulation of unchecked power amassed by Bush, seemingly unconcerned that in the next transfer of the executive office the club will have their name on it. They save their ire for bullying in school: leaving the school culture and nonstop parade of violence and intimidation on television intact, they hope warnings (warnings!) to 'be nice, children' will right the ship.

Thucydides believed such moral decline was irreversible -- that the fantasy of absolute power leaves nothing uncorrupted. In the end, only bullies and their victims remain. The bully pulpit itself, ironically, was associated with Teddy Roosevelt, no stranger to the big stick. Is there any other pulpit around, or has the timber been sold to the stick makers? If the soft cannot be strong as well, they shall indeed perish, trod under by the bully-dozers.