Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p.122]“It’s mine, and I can do what I want with it.”
Have you ever heard this defense of objectionable behavior? I think we hear it so often, spoken or tacitly assumed, that maybe we’d benefit by taking another look at the premise behind it. Among other things, a second look could help us understand some of the craziness of this past summer and “the old buffoons” who dominated it.
We first hear “It’s mine!” in the nursery. “Mine!” is one of the earliest words children learn, and it’s an emotionally laden word for them, as they struggle to develop that initial sense of self we all must have to survive as individuals. “Mine!” the toddler shouts, as he rips the eyes off his teddy bear. “Mine!” he insists, as someone tries to stop him from turning eight crayons into forty-eight fragments. And when he turns his attention to his live puppy (if his parents have been unwise enough to give him one), it takes quite an effort to teach him that “Mine!” doesn’t mean he can pull the creature’s tail, squeeze the breath out of him, or run him through the clothes dryer.
When that toddler shoots up another few feet and gets his (\[p.123]first car, he’ll learn more about restrictions on what is “his.” He may have paid for that car with buckets of sweat, but there are very particular limits on how he can drive it, park it, maintain it, license it, sell it, or junk it. And the restrictions swell to a whole series of code books when he buys real estate. “It’s mine” may be true, but that corollary—“and I can do what I want with it”—becomes less and less valid as the world’s population grows, and with it, our sense of responsibility for and to each other.
In America, and especially here in the West, the traditional laissez faire idea dies hard.
Freedom means much to us. In the past, whenever civilization breathed too hot down a person’s neck, he (rarely she) could pack up, ride west for a day or a week or a month, stake out a claim on some uncivilized land, and do pretty much anything with and on that land. For better or worse, those days are no more. Of course, we’re still arguing about whether we’re free to slash all the timber off a mountainside to make toilet paper, dump toxic wastes in our lakes and streams, shoot coyotes, restrict access to wilderness, and a hundred other particulars. But most of us share the premise that we are not free to do whatever we want with this planet, because it is “ours” only in a carefully defined sense of that word.
(As a small example, the Mormon leadership has recently discovered that even though they can validly say “It’s ours” about the Hotel Utah, many citizens disagree about the corollary: “We can do what we want with it.” Some people seem to feel that, as in the case of the Coalville Tabernacle and other landmarks, once a building has become part of the community, participating and benefitting from the give and take of community life, there is then a shared right as well as a shared responsibility.)
“She’s mine,” husbands have said about wives for centuries, and for all but a tiny recent slice of that time, the law upheld them. Women were chattel, and so were children. Beat them, rape them, work them till they dropped in the mines or the mills or the fields; the defense was recognized—“They’re mine, and I can do what I want with them.” We’re working on cleaning up the ragged edges of that problem today, on issues such as marital rape, all forms of child abuse, and a whole range of more subtle questions: Must your daughter have your permission before she can get birth control pills? Can the state [p.124]force you to send your son to a public school? To innoculate him against contagious diseases? If your baby is ill in the hospital, can you be forced to allow a blood transfusion, even against your principles? If your newborn suffers from multiple birth defects, will you be allowed to turn off life support systems? A man’s salary may be his, but in Michigan, for example, the state can now take money out of his paycheck to cover child support.
How does all this relate to Oliver North and Ronald Reagan and the rest of the “Rough Riders” involved in the messy Iran-Contra Affair?
It occurs to me that if we say “mine!” so adamantly about teddy bears and tricycles, property and even other people, we also say it with equal passion about our positions, our jobs and the status that goes with them. People have confused themselves with their jobs long before Louis XIV said, “L’etat, c’est moi!” Look around you. Don’t you know a manager or a mother, a bishop or a dean or a dad who has so thoroughly blurred the lines that the job has become the identity? Such people come to believe that whatever they want, whatever they think best for the institution—that is best. No one knows the whole story better than they, no one loves the institution more, and any who think otherwise are enemies to be outwitted.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of such merging of person and position in this century was J. Edgar Hoover, founder and first director of the FBI. Hoover was the FBI for decades. Presidents came and went, but Hoover stayed. No wonder that he felt himself accountable only to God. Hoover left a great legacy, but the record shows his sense of sovereignty also resulted in serious abuses. The bureau wasn’t ours; it was his.
He could do what he liked with it. The fabric of democracy starts to unravel when people believe that way.
And so we come to Oliver North, happily offering himself as the fall guy, the shield between his superiors (“Us”) and Congress, the Justice Department, and the American public (“Them”). We come to Admiral John Poindexter, the president’s “National Security Advisor,” stoically puffing his pipe, ready to go down with his ship, and totally convinced to the end that it is, indeed, his ship. And we come to the Big Guy, Ronald Reagan. Nationally syndicated columnist James Reston has pointed out that every president in this century who won a second term by a large margin has been involved in a major scandal during that [p.125]second term. Apparently it is far too easy to move from the premise, “The people support what I’m doing” to the conclusion “Whatever I do, the people will support.” We all know that power can corrupt us, wherever we exercise it, and that for that reason it must be handled as are all powerful, dangerous things. But it is only absolute power that corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton said—absolute power, the power that thinks it must answer to no one, that power that shouts, “Mine! And I can do with it what I like!”